Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

A refund for Healthcare.gov, European lobbyists, and A-Rod’s curious supporters

Steven Brill
Oct 22, 2013 13:47 UTC

1. Can we get our money back for the failure of Healthcare.gov?

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal scored a scoop of sorts, getting the first interview with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius since her ill-fated appearance on “The Daily Show.” She addressed the failure of her Healthcare.gov website to function as the enrollment marketplace for the 36 states that are having the federal government operate their Obamacare insurance exchanges, instead of doing exchanges on their own.

The Journal quoted Sebelius as saying “she would see if the government was entitled to any refunds, once the work is done.” With $400 million having been spent on outside contractors for the collapsed website, reporters ought to follow up on that aggressively.

Government contractors usually escape responsibility for cost overruns, lapsed schedules or downright failure to produce a product that works by claiming, rightly or wrongly, that the instructions they were given destined the project for failure, were not explicit enough, or were changed midway through the work. In the case of Healthcare.gov, the Statement of Work instructing the lead contractor, CGI Federal, was 60 pages, single-spaced. So lack of detail may not be a great defense. But were the instructions poorly conceived — or changed in a way that caused the current fiasco? Or are other factors responsible for the failure, making it unlikely that we taxpayers can get some of our money back?

More generally, it seems as if every government contract results in delays, overruns, or failure. Has the government ever gotten its money back? When? How? What were the circumstances?

And who and what is to blame for situations where the contractors failed miserably but there was no accountability? One related example that I will harp on until someone does the story: Are we getting any money back from Booz Allen Hamilton for what their guy Edward Snowden cost us? Booz, by the way, was also a contractor on the Obamacare project.

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.

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.

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?

Campaign questions, the world’s worst government agency, and medical lobbies

Steven Brill
Jan 17, 2012 14:28 UTC

1. Mitt’s tax bracket:

Note to television producers or editors about to do interviews with Mitt Romney on the campaign trail: The tax rate for the lower-middle class and middle class (joint filers earning roughly $17,000 to $70,000) is 15%. So any of your reporters doing an interview with Romney should ask him if he paid more than 15% of his total income in federal income taxes last year, or more than 25% — the bracket for income from $70,001 to $142,700.

Because of preferential treatment of capital gains, of “carried interest” income earned by people in the private equity business, and of money derived from offshore investments, as well as other tax breaks, there’s a good chance that Romney didn’t pay at a rate of 25% or even 15%. Be sure to use “total income” in the question, which would be Romney’s income before taking deductions for many of the tax breaks not available to average wage earners. Update: Shortly after this column was published, Romney was asked precisely this question, and told reporters that he paid “closer to the 15% rate than anything.”

Romney’s likely answer, based on what he has said so far, will be that he has not decided to release his tax returns but that he may do so later.

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