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.

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?

The Dodd-Frank effect, unions and private equity, and Newt’s expenses

Steven Brill
Jan 31, 2012 13:19 UTC

1. The Dodd-Frank effect: Good, bad or both?

Although the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the mega-agency created by the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill, has only been in existence for about six months, all of the Republican presidential candidates and GOP congressional leaders have slammed the agency and called for its abolition. Their central charge is that the regulations it has already promulgated are strangling the financial system and disabling banks from making the kinds of loans to small businesses and potential homeowners that would reignite the economy.

For example, in the Jan. 23 Republican presidential debate Mitt Romney said he had spoken to a banker in New York who said he had “hundreds of lawyers” tied up trying to navigate the new regulations.

Some sophisticated financial reporter, or team of reporters, needs to dig into that – with specifics. What exactly is the new agency requiring that is gumming up the works? What new rules are drawing the most persuasive complaints? How burdensome are they? How many lawyers and others are actually involved who were not working on the same types of regulations before? What abuses are the new rules intended to prevent? Which ones, if any, really do seem indefensible and which ones, if any, seem smartly crafted and worth the extra burden?

Oil spill muckraking, SEC excuses, and Gingrich’s taxes

Steven Brill
Dec 20, 2011 14:16 UTC

1. The Muck Around the BP-Halliburton Oil Spill Legal Fights

Earlier this month, BP filed papers in federal court alleging that Halliburton – which built the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon offshore well for BP – had destroyed test results showing it had used unstable cement to secure the well. The 310-page filing, filled with lurid accusations of negligence and cover-ups, is one of many such documents now sitting in publicly-available court records charging all kinds of misconduct by everyone involved in the oil spill disaster. For example, there’s also Halliburton’s suit against BP, filed in September, accusing BP of fraud and of hiding information that could have prevented the spill. A tour through all of this multi-million dollar lawyer name-calling is  bound to be fun reading, as would a highlights reel from the ton of documents produced in the dozens of suits filed by plaintiffs lawyers against both companies. It’s time that someone plow through all the mudslinging and tell us which charges, if any, seem real and what they tell us about letting either of these companies continue to operate in the Gulf or anywhere else.

2. Post-Crash Prosecutions: Excuses or Reality?

I tend to be skeptical of any government agency that cites funding shortages as an excuse for poor performance. So, as I keep reading all of those stories quoting the SEC saying that one reason the agency hasn’t been able to be tougher on those accused of violations related to the financial crash is because of budget constraints, my radar flares – especially since a quick check that any reporter could do before simply taking down those quotes reveals that the SEC’s $1.26 billion budget for the just-ended fiscal year is nearly three times its budget nine years ago. Can’t we see some reporting that details whether these supposed constraints on enforcement are real and, if so, why, given the flood of extra funding?

We also keep reading about the difficulty of proving criminal intent as the excuse for there not having been any prosecutions of major Wall Street bosses, which is the responsibility of the Justice Department, not the SEC. But I haven’t seen anything yet that actually explains why it’s harder to prosecute these securities fraud cases than others. Can’t someone zero in on those issues by talking to experienced prosecutors and defense lawyers and pinning down, with specifics, whether or why that’s true – or whether what’s more at work is some kind of failure of will, or nerve? How good a lawyer and leader is Lanny Breuer, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division? And is it he or the local U.S. Attorneys who are making these decisions not to pull the trigger?

Gingrich’s list, presidential book contracts, and job accounting

Steven Brill
Dec 13, 2011 13:20 UTC

1. Gingrich’s Profits From His “Personal” Mailing List:

The Washington Post’s Dan Eggen did a terrific story last week detailing how former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accumulated large debts early on in his presidential campaign by, among other things, staying in pricey hotels and using hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of private jets. Much of the debt has still not been repaid, Eggen reported. One great nugget that caught my eye could use some follow-up. The Post found that $42,000 of the debt had already been paid – to “Gingrich himself” – for the purchase by his campaign of his “personal” donor and friends mailing list. Handing over a copy of a mailing list involves zero cost, which means that Gingrich – who could legally have given the list to his campaign as an in-kind contribution, according to the Post – apparently pocketed $42,000 in profit from his campaign donors and did so before paying off third-party creditors. I’d love to see a follow-up in which voters, not to mention donors, are asked how they feel about Gingrich pocketing the equivalent of more than 80 percent of the average household income of the voters he is courting.

Oh, and another thing: It has to have been one of Gingrich’s political organizations that paid for the solicitations and other work involved in compiling and maintaining the list, not the former Speaker himself. So, assuming the Post is correct that the money was paid to him personally, how did he get personal ownership of a list that is worth $42,000 every time it is loaned out – and, when he did, did he pay income tax on his receipt of this valuable asset?

2. The Candidates’ Book Deals:

I wonder if any of the Republican presidential candidates who have current books on the market – Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney – have any provisions in their publishing contracts giving them higher advances provided that they stay in the race for a certain period of time. It seems especially possible that this could be a factor in why Cain only suspended his campaign and why Bachmann is hanging on.

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