Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Vetting the Syrian rebels, stock gyrations, and A-Rod’s return

Steven Brill
Jun 18, 2013 11:47 UTC

1.  Vetting the Syrian rebels:

Most of those pushing for providing arms and other aid to the Syrian rebels — which the Obama administration announced last week it will now do — have promised that the rebels could be “vetted” so that weapons and other assistance don’t end up in the hands of jihadists and other bad actors.

I wish I could see a story explaining how that’s going to be done. We seem to have a hard enough time vetting Americans, like Edward Snowden, before giving them top secret security clearances. What’s the plan to separate the good rebels from the bad ones in Syria before letting them lock and load?

2. A gene-screening company’s stock gyrations:

Two weeks ago, I suggested a story  about how hedge funds must be using lawyers to handicap an imminent make-or-break Supreme Court decision concerning Myriad Genetics. That’s the company whose claimed patent of a gene has allowed it to charge more than $3,000 for the kind of test used by actress Angelina Jolie to determine whether she was likely to become a breast cancer victim.

Last Thursday at 10:30, the high court issued a unanimous and seemingly dispositive decision — that genes cannot be patented. Yet it seems that there was as much or more speculation and uncertainty after the Court announced its ruling as there was before.

For more than an hour after the decision was handed down — and headlined on most major news websites as a definitive defeat for the gene testing company — Myriad stock was actually up about 8 percent, to an all-time high of $38.27.

Lying to the SEC, A-Rod’s contract, and everybody gets hacked

Steven Brill
Feb 5, 2013 12:47 UTC

1.      Suppose a college applicant did this?

Here’s a story that seems so bizarre that it might be good material for a Tom Wolfe re-do of The Bonfire of the Vanities rather than worth the time of a serious non-fiction reporter – except that it’s apparently true. According to this New York Times report last month, Egan-Jones, an “upstart credit ratings firm,” has been:

barred for 18 months from issuing certain government-recognized ratings after the firm made misstatements on an application with the government. The S.E.C. said the firm had exaggerated its record when it applied for a government designation in July 2008. The firm said then that it had performed 150 ratings of asset-backed securities and 50 ratings of governments, when it actually had performed none at that time, according to the agency…. Under the terms of the penalty, Egan-Jones is barred [for 18 months] from rating asset-backed and government securities issuers as a so-called nationally recognized statistical rating organization….For other categories of ratings, Egan-Jones will still have the government designation.

Huh? “Exaggerated” its record? A firm applying for the SEC seal of approval as a provider of honest securities ratings seems to have completely fabricated its resume, saying it had done 200 ratings when it had done zero. And the SEC puts them in the penalty box for just 18 months for some ratings and lets them keep right on providing other ratings?

Electoral legal minefields, baseball contracts, and airline woes

Steven Brill
Oct 16, 2012 10:26 UTC

1. The Election Day legal battlefield:

We need all kinds of coverage of the legal Armageddon that we may face on Election Day and the morning after.

Assuming the election stays close, there could be multiple swing states in play, with voter identification and provisional balloting rules so much in flux that the multi-court, multi-issue legal war we suffered through in Florida in 2000 will look simple by comparison.

For example, voting in Ohio in 2008 was marred by all kinds of confusion and fights over thousands of ballots, but the battle ended on election night because President Obama pulled ahead of Senator McCain in the state by such a wide margin that the contested ballots would not have been decisive. This time, Ohio is likely to be much closer, and even with a federal judge having thus far enjoined implementation of new, Republican-sponsored early voting restrictions, confusion persists and the state’s election machinery seems no less subject to breakdowns and disputes than it was in 2008.

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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