Thursday, August 30, 2012

Payoff in the Pit of the Plutocracy

by RUSSELL MOKHIBER
 
Jeff Connaughton was a lobbyist, a Senate aide and a White House lawyer. He says he came to Washington, D.C. as a Democrat and left as a Plutocrat.

Now he’s written a book – The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins (Prospecta Press, August 20, 2012.)

This book is about corporate crime – although that phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in its 288 pages.

It is in fact one of the best books on how corporate criminals manipulate the system to get away with their crimes.

One way is to enforce silence among the elites who know how the system works.

“Party cohesion and the desire to make a munificent living in DC go a long way to enforce silence,” Connaughton writes.

But Connaughton is silent no more.

“I’m willing to burn every bridge,” he writes. “Now that I’ve mutinied and fled to a remote place, I want to set flame to the ship that would take me back there.”

Connaughton says there have been no Wall Street prosecutions because the Obama Justice Department failed “to take a timely, targeted, all-in approach to the problem.”

“The truth is, the Justice Department never made investigating these actions a high priority,” he writes. “It never formed strike forces of investigators and lawyers that had sufficient resources and backing to doggedly pursue the obvious potential wrongdoers as long as it took to bring a fraud case.”

Prosecutors never used provisions in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which put in place tough criminal sanctions in the wake of Enron and other cases of massive corporate frauds, to indict those executives responsible for misleading financial reports.

“If Obama had appointed aggressive trial lawyers – and (Vice President Joe) Biden knew plenty of them – to these Justice Department positions and backed their efforts, there’s a good chance they would’ve hunted the worst Wall Street fraudsters relentlessly.”

“If the explanation for the inadequate effort is corruption (the administration could not afford to anger Wall Street contributors), the revolving door, or a belief that the health of the financial industry is more important than legal accountability, then we have an actual double standard. I don’t know the explanation, but in terms of faith in our institutions, it may not matter whether the double standard is real or apparent. That double standard has torn the social and moral fabric of our country in a way I find to be unforgivable.”

Connaughton says that two sources were telling him that Christine Varney, the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division, “was complaining to friends that Rahm Emanuel, then White House chief of staff, had sent her a message – in effect, throttle back on antitrust enforcement, because the top priority is economic recovery.”

“I was concerned that Attorney General Holder had gotten the same message about investigating Wall Street crime,” he writes.

Connaughton quotes Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner as saying – “The stuff that seemed appealing in terms of…Old Testament justice…penalize the venal, would have been dramatically damaging to the basic strategy of putting out the panic, getting growth back, making people feel more confident in the future.”

“Geithner’s statement would seem to indicate that he believes utilitarian outcomes justify overlooking potentially criminal behavior by banks,” Connaughton writes.

Connaughton worked as chief of staff for Senator Ted Kaufman (D-Delaware.) Kaufman was appointed as Biden’s replacement and dedicated his two years in office to demanding accountability for Wall Street’s crimes.

During one meeting with Justice Department Criminal Division Chief Lanny Breuer, Breuer said the department was dependent on the “pipeline” to bring forward cases against Wall Street banks and their executives.

“That’s when I lost my temper,” Connaughton writes. “‘Lanny, you need to go down into your pipeline and make sure the FBI and U.S. attorney’s offices are making this a top priority.

Organize and shake your pipeline hard and get it to bring you cases. Don’t just sit back and wait.’”

“I also couldn’t resist invoking our mutual history in the White House Counsel’s office and even exhorting him to emulate the tactics of our former antagonist,” he writes. “‘You need to be like Ken Starr. You need to target some of these guys like they were drug kingpins, just like Starr targeted Clinton, and squeeze every junior person around them until you can get one to flip and give evidence against the senior people.”

The scene at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was not much better.

SEC Enforcement Division Director Robert Khuzami, when asked about federal judges rebuking the SEC for paltry fines, said to Kaufman: “I’m not losing any sleep over them.”

And SEC chair Mary Schapiro wasn’t much more responsive.

“Near the end of the [October 2009] meeting [Kaufman] told [SEC Chairman Mary] Schapiro, ‘I don’t believe you’re going to do anything about high-frequency trading.’ Looking him straight in the eye, she replied, ‘You just watch.’”

“We watched for nearly three years,” Connaughton writes. “It wasn’t until July 2011 and June 2012 that the SEC approved minimalist rules that would force market participates to collect the data that would enable the SEC to begin – begin – the process of understanding HFT’s impact on markets. In effect, Ted and I and America are still watching and waiting for the SEC to take meaningful action.”

“If my tenure as Ted’s chief of staff taught me anything, it’s that the C in SEC doesn’t stand for the speed of light.”

Kaufman introduced legislation with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to break up the big banks.

But Brown-Kaufman could muster only 33 votes in the Senate.

“Senator Diane Feinstein – one of the most liberal members of the Senate – asked [Senator Dick] Durbin, the majority whip, ‘What’s this amendment?’ [referring to the Brown-Kaufman amendment to break up the mega-banks]. According to Durbin, he replied: ‘To break up the banks.’ Giving the thumbs-down sign, Feinstein said bemusedly: ‘This is still America, isn’t it?’
Connaughton and Senator Kaufman tried to get enforcement authorities to move aggressively against Wall Street criminality. They tried to break up the big banks. To no avail.
They were up against The Blob.

And The Blob won.

“The Blob – its really called that – refers to the government entities that regulate the finance industry – like the Banking Committee, Treasury Department, and SEC – and the army of Wall Street representatives and lobbyists that continuously surrounds and permeates them,” Connaughton writes. “The Blob moves together. Its members are in constant contact by e-mail and phone. They dine, drink, and take vacations together. Not surprisingly, they frequently intermarry. No lobbying restrictions yet promulgated can prevent pillow talk between Blob spouses.”

Connaughton holds out hope for reform – but not until there is another Wall Street crisis.
In the meantime, he says it’s time to “stop voting for the lesser of two evils” – and stand on principle.

He has burned his bridges.

And he wants you to burn yours, too.