Friday, February 15, 2002

A lot of people are shocked --- shocked --- to discover that Bob Reich, a Democratic former cabinet secretary, was able, over the course of a year, to rack up $750,000 in speaking fees. (It's getting coverage here because Reich is making a run for governor). I'm not sure what the complaint is; would the same apply to Republican ex-Presidents? Compare and contrast:

Reagan received $2 million for a 10-day speaking tour of Japan. Bush received $80,000 worth of stock for a speech in Japan, which quickly increased in value to $14 million after the company went public. Carter climbed out of debt and into financial security with the help of money from the 15 books he has written.

Come on. If you want to beat up on Reich, find a real reason to do it. Like, for instance, his well-established record as a pathological liar...

At the risk of becoming the Enronblogger (I've been trying to avoid that), a few more words about the proceeds of payoffs and the power of positive denial.

First, the question of what Enron was getting for its campaign contributions. I've already discussed Enron's unusual access and immense influence over Dubya's energy policy, but Enron benefitted from Bush administration policies in other areas as well. Enron was playing a lot of games with offshore subsidiaries --- they had 800 separate subsidiaries in tax havens like the Caymans. This tax haven hanky-panky would have had much stricter scrutiny under regulatory deals reached by the outgoing Clinton administration (in some cases, including the Caymans, under threat of economic sanctions). Bush, coming in, backed off on the deals within a month. Enron also led the lobbying effort towards retroactive repeal of the corporate alternative minimum tax in the House "stimulus" proposal, which would have given Enron a quick quarter billion dollar refund. There's more, but that will do for now.

As to denial, Robert Musil is still at it:

The Times article reels off a long list of prominent companies and investment banks involved in these "shady practices".... Further, although McGeehan never seems to make the connection, it is fairly clear that many major accounting firms other than the hapless Arthur Andersen must have signed off on these transactions. IT IS SURELY A CONSPIRACY SO VAST...!

What the Times and much of the media seem to be having a lot of trouble understanding is that every time the Enron practices are shown to be more widespread, those very practices are more likely to actually NOT have been inconsistent (or at least deliberately inconsistent) with generally accepted accounting principles, applicable disclosure laws and Securities and Exchange Commission regulations and the good faith custom and practice of the accounting profession. What the Times recounts is strong evidence in this direction.

Musil is still trying to infer whether the Enron financial statements, as originally published, properly reflected the financial state of the firm, according to generally accepted accounting principles, based on the behavior of banks and other such straws in the wind.

To most of us, this question was definitively settled by Enron's "restatement" of its financial reports going back several years, which reduced profits by roughly $600 million, added about $700 million to the company's debt, took a cool $1.2 billion off shareholder's equity, and sent the company into its death spiral --- not to mention the ensuing two-week shredding party at their accounting firm and their subsequent dismissal of the partner responsible for the audit and shredding (who proceeded to take the fifth before Congress), and finally, Enron's dismissal of the accountants. Enron itself now claims the accountants didn't do a proper job --- but to Musil, the jury is still out.

Thursday, February 14, 2002

Dubya continues to appoint officials of high and upstanding moral character. One of the latest: Admiral John Poindexter, appointed to head two new offices, the Information Awareness Office and the Information Exploitation Office.

Poindexter is best known for his role in the Iran-contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration illegally sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to illegally fund the Contra rebels, and then illegally covered the whole thing up --- the coverup continuing into the Herbert Walker Bush administration. Notably, they were selling arms covertly while publicly trying to make Iran a pariah state. Poindexter was eventually convicted for his role in the sales and coverup.

But the conviction was overturned when an appellate panel ruled that special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh couldn't prove that his team had never taken notice of Poindexter's testimony before Congress. (It wasn't enough that Walsh had never used the testimony in court, as part of his case --- the standard was that he and his team couldn't even see it, which was impossible, as it had been widely covered in the press).

So, defenders of Dubya, take heart --- the head of the Information Awareness Office may, in the past, have masterminded a coverup , but he is not, repeat not, a convict.

More news from Boston: There's one blot on the escutcheon of pseudonymous namesake --- and the local Catholic hierarchy can't stop reminding me what it is. At least, so far as anyone knows, the original Charles Dodgson just like to watch, though, which is more than I can say for them. The latest: one priest was still working even after the church settled at least five claims against him. Another accused pedophile has been officially described as "missing" for years by the church, even though they were still mailing him checks all the while.

At last report, Cardinal Law still won't consider resigning. At a sermon last Sunday, he reportedly analogized his relationship to parishoners as a marriage, where, when you have problems, you work it out.

He might want to consider whether depraved indifference to child abuse constitutes grounds for divorce...

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Salon reports on a worrisome trend: several times over the past few years, prosecutors have leaned on bookstores for their customer records. In one case, the target of the investigation had already killed himself, and what the prosecutors really wanted to "clear [themselves] of the perception that they pushed an innocent man to suicide."

To their credit, all of the bookstores described in the article are fighting it, including Amazon and Borders, on grounds that release of that information would have a chilling effect on free speech. The big ones, at least, have the money to pay for a serious legal team without thinking too hard; smaller independant bookstores are more vulnerable to pressure, and have been subjected to raids with no apparent purpose other than intimidation.

This sort of privacy issue has gotten national attention before --- when Bork's video rentals came up at his confirmation hearings, the upshot was a bill which protected the confidentiality of video store customer records. I guess they thought it just couldn't ever be a problem with bookshops.

In the meantime, while patronizing my excellent local bookstores, I stay out of their frequent buyer databases --- and pay cash.

Tuesday, February 12, 2002

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays show the power of positive denial:

On the last day of the season, after the Rays had lost their 100th game, manager Hal McRae said to the assembled media, "We don't know we lost 100 games, you guys do."

The blogsphere's capacity for rationalization about Enron seems limitless. My fellow pseudonym, Robert Musil, claims on his Blog without Qualities that Enron's financial condition actually was correctly represented on the company's financial statements, and that his financial associates figured it all out just by reading the statements. Which makes them better informed than the company's CEO and Chairman, both of whom have publicly professed blissful ignorance. But consider the alternative:

To conclude that Enron's fraud had the scope its critics now allege, complicity of Arthur Andersen and a conspiratorial intent on the part of Enron's own officers is only the beginning. One must then assume that each member of the board of directors was willing to risk his or her personal fortune, career, reputation and honor - all for compensation reportedly of less than half a million dollars per year.

Less than half a million dollars per year. Chicken feed.

What's more significant, perhaps, is the way some folks rationalize away connections between Enron management and the Bush administration. Which might be a problem if they evaluated Bush by the same standards that Republicans used for Clinton --- the upstanding moral character of his associates. That was the character issue, which he ran on more than anything of substance, remember?

(In that connection, it's tempting to mention some of Bush's other displays of flawed character, like visiting a youth program in Oregon, offering strong words of support, and then gutting its funding. Or his on-again, off-again promise of $20 billion in aid to New York. But that's thin gruel. The first can be written off as not quite a lie, since he never actually uttered a promise to keep funding the program. As to the second --- well, that's a link to a column by Paul Krugman, so it should suffice to completely ignore the argument, and mutter something about fuzzy math. So, for the moment, at least, back to Enron).

Here, too, the rationalizations teem. Bush was campaigning on Enron's corporate jet? Tut, tut, it's just an airplane. Dubya, while governor of Texas, personally lobbies the governor of Pennsylvania on Enron's behalf? He was just supporting a Texas company; any governor would have done as much. Bush père had Lay on an overnight to the White House? But he had lots of guests. Senior Enron executives were ordered by Lay to donate large amounts to Dubya's campaign, as a way around the limits on direct contributions? Heck, it was their money. Enron parks former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed on its payroll, on the recommendation of Bush political guru Karl Rove? Why then, Reed must have been doing good work for the company. (As an expert on spiritual energy, perhaps). How about a trusteeship for "Kenny Boy" on the board of the Bush presidential library, literally entrusting Ken Lay with the Bush family legacy? Evidently not even worthy of comment.

So, with regard to social connections, and campaign contributions, the blinders are clearly on. And maybe rightly so --- what's really relevant is the degree to which Enron exercised improper influence over policy. Which, in turn, can't be definitively assessed so long as Cheney is playing possum. But we can look for the moment at what we do know.

And what do we find? Rationalizations. Remarkable ones.

Let's start with the strange case of Curt Hébert, the first Chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under Bush, who resigned under pressure, and was replaced by a good old boy from Texas. The GAO was asked to look into whether Lay had exercised improper influence. Their intriguing report says that:

  • Hébert wanted Lay's political support.
  • That support was contingent on Hébert changing his policy stands to be more favorable, in specific ways, to Lay and Enron.
  • This was understood on both sides of the conversation.
...but that none of this was improper because Lay's political support was not an "intangible ... thing of value" (it was only Hébert's job, after all), and because no one had uttered the magic words "quid pro quo". It's for logic like this that I named this blog for the works of Lewis Carroll.

Or consider the remarkable memo uncovered by the SF Chronicle, which was passed from Lay to Cheney at a private meeting. Almost all of its "advice" instantly became administration policy.

That meeting itself was more than passing strange --- it featured extensive discussions about the then-current California energy crisis at a time when California's elected officials, Governor and Senators alike, were repeatedly denied meetings on the subject. And not only that, Lay was the only corporate executive Cheney met with one-on-one. (But Lay denies knowing that he had any special role. Quelle surprise).

But, the administration's defenders argue, Enron didn't get its way in everything --- Enron supported the Kyoto protocol, for instance, which the administration opposed, thus proving its independant judgment. In other words, Cheney went against Enron when its peripheral concerns butted up hard against the vital interests of the coal and oil industries, thus demonstrating for all that he is not a spineless tool of the energy industries. Or so the argument goes. I'm underwhelmed.

But Enron wasn't just throwing money at Bush --- they were throwing money at anyone who would take it, goes another line. True --- as I've noted elsewhere, the notoriously flawed California deregulation plan was shaped by Enron-channeling Democrats. But, quoth the Washington Post, they were fairly careful about getting value for money; their system for monitoring the influence market featured high tech and elaborate models comparable to anything they used to run their dealings in, say, natural gas. And if their contributions to Republicans, and Bush in particular, were disproportionate, we might reasonably refer that the "influence peddlotron", as Joshua Marshall has memorably dubbed it, was telling them that that's where they could get value for money.

The trump card of the administration's defenders is that when at long last the company was falling apart, the administration wouldn't talk to them about a bailout. So: in spring, when the company still appears to politicians as a well-endowed donor, they get extraordinary access and influence (one-on-one meetings with Cheney, who won't even deign to talk to California's governor or Senators; when FERC policy doesn't align with Ken Lay's, the chairman gets bounced). But, when they place the call that says the gravy train is out of steam, their phone calls are no longer returned. I think we can all agree that that clarifies the nature of the relationship.

If there are innocent explanations for all of this, they are certainly to be found in the records of Cheney's ad hoc energy committee. In which case, he need not concede that Congress has the right to see his papers; he can just let them have a good look out of magnanimity. Just show the records and come clean. Isn't that what they kept telling Hillary?

Instead, he's stonewalling the GAO, and lying about what they're asking for in a vain attempt to give his position a respectability which it doesn't deserve. And as long as he keeps that up, this looks worse than Whitewater ever did, and it goes straight to the heart of government policy-making, which Whitewater did not.

Sunday, February 10, 2002

A belated comment: it was announced in the Olympic opening ceremonies that the three pillars of the Olympic movement are sport, culture, and the environment.

Damn. I could have sworn they were sport, drugs, and bribery.

It certainly would have made for better ties with earlier Olympic history. "Representing drugs, from the 1976 East German Womens' Olympic Swim Team, Unga Webber". And with the bribery representative, they could have added a little local color.

Such lost opportunities...

More news from Boston: Cardinal Law is now being personally named as a defendant in lawsuits concerning the church's handling of known and suspected pedophile priests (search for "lawsuit" here). The church has repeatedly promised to cooperate with law enforcement, but DAs are calling the lists of suspects they provided, worthless And their liability insurance may already be maxed out from the cases it has already settled.

And local TV news reports that the church had assigned pedophile priests to new parishes after promising not to, when settling the lawsuits which came out of their earlier misbehavior. That nearly seals the case for something worse here than malign neglect.

Why on earth would they do that? One aspect of the situation on which I haven't seen much comment is that the Catholic church is facing a very severe shortage of priests; priests with unblotted escutcheons may not have been available for a lot of these posts. Some might suggest that the celibacy rule is contributing here to the pedophilia problem in more ways than one. But the official position from the Vatican is that the celibacy rule has nothing to do with the shortage. And if you can't trust a Cardinal, then who can you trust?