Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

More questions for Snowden and the GOP establishment takes on the 2016 primaries

Steven Brill
Jun 3, 2014 05:00 UTC

Accused government whistleblower Snowden is seen on a screen as he speaks via videoconference with members of the Committee on legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg

1. Snowden questions NBC missed:

In his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams last week, Edward Snowden tried to bolster his credentials this way: “I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word — in that I lived and worked undercover, overseas, pretending to work in a job … and even being assigned a name that was not mine …. Now, the government might deny these things. They might frame it in certain ways, and say, ‘Oh, well, you know, he’s a low-level analyst.’”

In that segment — and as best I can tell from watching what I think were all the segments of Brian Williams’ interview — three words never came up: Booz Allen Hamilton.

Booz Allen Hamilton is the government contractor that Snowden supposedly worked for. As Talking Points Memo reported a year ago in this article, in the video in which Snowden introduced himself to the world following publication of his initial leaks, he said: “My name is Ed Snowden, I’m 29 years old, I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for [the] NSA, in Hawaii.”

The same Talking Points article quoted Snowden and his collaborator Glenn Greenwald, writing in the Guardian, as saying that the only direct employment he had for any spy agencies was as a “security guard” at an National Security Agency facility in Maryland and as someone “working on IT security” for the CIA in Geneva.

Was he lying to the world and to Greenwald then, or to Williams now?  Someone ought to follow up on the contradictions that Williams missed.

How would a woman “prove” rape to qualify for Romney’s abortion exemption?

Steven Brill
Aug 28, 2012 15:31 UTC

In the wake of the Todd Akin firestorm, Mitt Romney and a flip-flopping Paul Ryan have emphasized that their anti-choice stance excludes rape. In a Romney administration, abortions would be outlawed except in the case of women who have been raped, the Republican ticket has promised.

So here’s an idea, first suggested by my daughter and one of her friends: Who’s going to be the first reporter to ask Romney or Ryan how that would work? How would they implement that exception?

Would a woman’s rapist have to be convicted in court? How would that work, given that in most criminal cases it takes longer than nine months from when the crime is committed to catch the criminal (assuming the criminal is caught), prepare charges and reach a verdict. In fact, the window would be significantly less than nine months; it would start from when the pregnancy is discovered and end somewhere around the 16 to 20 weeks left during which abortions can be performed most safely.

Romney’s tax audit, Aurora and risk, inside the IRS

Steven Brill
Jul 30, 2012 19:20 UTC

1. What happened with Romney’s audit?

On Sunday, Mitt Romney – while promising ABC he would “go back and check” to see if he had ever paid less than the 13.9 percent in income taxes he reported paying in the only return he has released so far – volunteered that he had been audited in the past by the IRS. So, the next question needs to be, “Governor, when you were audited, did the IRS then require you to pay additional taxes, and, if so, would you specify the discrepancy between what you claimed and what the IRS determined was the appropriate tax? And was more than one year of returns audited? If so, what were the results of those other audits?”

2. Aurora and risk:

When I saw reports in the wake of the Aurora massacre that theater chains are thinking about how they might implement new security measures to restrict who can bring what into a theater, I was reminded of a story I read recently about what happened in the aftermath of a horrific air crash 16 years ago.

Most of us have only a dim memory of TWA Flight 800, the Boeing 747 that exploded over the Atlantic shortly after leaving Kennedy Airport for Paris on the night of July 26, 1996.

Pinning Romney down on taxes

Steven Brill
Jul 19, 2012 21:23 UTC

The press is missing a trick in continuing to ask Governor Romney only whether he’s going to release more than his most recent tax returns. That allows him to say either yes or no (for now, it’s no), which produces no information. So no news gets made. But there are lots of other ways to get at the Romney tax issue by asking him a variety of different questions, for which even a refusal to comment would be news.

All these questions should begin with something like this: “Governor, we know you feel that releasing additional tax returns will invade your privacy and that of your family and, as you have asserted, allow the Obama campaign to pick through thousands of pages and come up with more distortions and half-truths. So if you are not going to release the returns, could you just tell us this:

Reporters could then choose from among these follow-on questions:

1. In the last 10 years have you ever paid less than 10 percent of your adjusted gross income in federal income taxes? If you don’t know offhand, could you ask your accountant to tell us? (On different days reporters could substitute 7 percent, 5 percent or 2 percent as the benchmark.)

A hidden Gulf economy, Romney’s old taxes, and patent wars

Steven Brill
Mar 6, 2012 13:15 UTC

1. An underground economy in the Gulf?

I was interested to read these paragraphs in a recent New York Times story about the processing of claims being made by victims of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; pay special attention to the part I have underlined:

Glenn Poche, a shrimper, said he had lost 90 percent of his retail business. Despite official assurances that seafood pulled from the Gulf of Mexico is safe, many of his customers “want to wait a couple more years” to be sure….

Diane Poche, Glenn Poche’s wife, said she had received $30,000 from the fund — “just a little drop in the bucket of what we’ve lost” — but her claims for more had been refused, she said, her voice rising. “I sent in paperwork over two inches thick!”

Romney’s ads, the Komen firestorm, and a Foxconn book

Steven Brill
Feb 14, 2012 12:53 UTC

1. Tracking Romney’s ad buys:

Look at the remaining Republican primary calendar dates and the candidates’ respective strengths and do the math: There are certain states where Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich seem to have the best chance later this winter and spring (assuming one or both stay in the race) of winning enough delegates to deny Mitt Romney the majority he needs to lock up the nomination before the convention. These include Georgia (76 delegates, Super Tuesday – Mar. 6), Ohio (66 delegates, Super Tuesday) Tennessee (58 delegates, Super Tuesday), Alabama (50 delegates on Mar. 13), Texas (a huge 155 delegates on Apr. 3), Pennsylvania (72 delegates on Apr. 24), and California (an enormous 172 delegates on June 5).

Here’s an angle on these contests that could provide not only a heads-up on where the most dramatic showdowns might occur but also another dimension to the story of how outside money and negative ads have pretty much taken over the process: Some smart political reporting unit should be bird-dogging the ad sales people for local television stations in markets in those states, looking to find out if the Romney campaign and allied super PAC are buying enough ad time right now to carry out against Santorum or Gingrich the same kind of carpet bombing they did in Florida, where a reported $15.3 million ad buy buried Gingrich.

Following the scare produced by the loss in South Carolina, the Romney team proved in Florida that it could and would spend whatever it takes to snuff out the strongest not-Romney contender. To take one example of what it would mean for Romney to use that formula in upcoming contests, it costs more to blanket Texas with ads than it does Florida, and there is a longer run-up to that race than there was between South Carolina and Florida. That could translate into an ad spend of $40 million or $50 million across the Lone Star State.

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.

Romney’s delegate math, BP and Bhopal, and spotlighting CEO pay

Steven Brill
Jan 9, 2012 13:26 UTC

1. How does Mitt get over the top?

This year the rules for the Republican nominating convention have been changed to tilt more toward awarding delegates proportionately rather than giving all the state’s delegates to whoever wins its primary, no matter how slim the margin. To be sure, some reports have overstated the change; the rules have never been completely winner-take-all across the country, and this year’s changes don’t affect every state. But the changes could be important in a year when national polls continue to point to front-runner Mitt Romney’s difficulty in attracting more than about 25% support.

Indeed, with it seeming clear that even in states like New Hampshire, Romney can’t seem to attract majority support in a multi-candidate race, I keep looking for a story that will explain how Romney will capture the majority of delegates necessary to get the nomination. Could one irony be that–despite the conventional wisdom that what is saving Romney is that opposition to him is split in a multi-candidate race–it is, in fact, the presence of multiple candidates that most threatens Romney’s ability to wrap up the nomination, because it allows voters to choose their favorite non-Romney from multiple flavors?

It seems possible that Ron Paul will keep enjoying 10%-20% support, while the Santorum/Gingrich/Perry conservative faction could keep commanding 30%-40% support, especially if more than one of them stays in the race (and on the television debate stage) through the spring, assuming they don’t run out of money altogether or can live on shoe-string budgets when the money gets low.

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.)

Romney, Sully, Steve Jobs and The Boss

Steven Brill
Nov 22, 2011 10:00 UTC

By Steven Brill

This is the first entry in a new regular column, “Stories I’d Like To See.” It’s the notebook of someone who still thinks like an editor but is over the thrill of managing a reporting staff – or the hassle of dealing with “great” story ideas that crash and burn when someone actually goes out and reports them and learns anew that even the best editors can’t hit much better than the best ballplayers (meaning three or four out of ten story ideas will actually work).

1. Mitt the philanthropist:

If the excellent New York Times story last month about Mitt Romney’s Mormon Church involvement is correct, he is required to tithe 10 percent of his income to the Church or church activities each year. This would amount to an enormous amount of money when he was running Bain Capital during its highly-successful years. It might even make him the most charitable person ever to run for President (or be President). Is this true? Or did he tithe 10 percent of his “taxable income,” which would have been a lot less, given all the deductions and favorable tax-rate-treatment available to a high-income private-equity earner?

2. Mitt the taxpayer:

On the other hand, this raises the issue of what percentage of his gross earnings Romney paid in taxes during his best years, or even last year, when presumably all of his earnings were capital gains and might also have been subject to all kinds of investment tax credit and other deductions. I know he hasn’t released his tax returns (yet), but can’t someone get access to Bain’s investor reports and an estimate of his gross income, and then extrapolate that into what he actually might have paid, given favorable tax treatment of capital gains and of carried interest payouts to private equity fund managers? Or, at least, can’t some pesky reporter simply pick Bain’s best two or three years when he was running it and ask Romney what percent of federal income tax he paid on his gross income?

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