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How can Billion Dollar Fines be Little More Than Water off a Duck’s Back?

indexNew Orleans   I hate to admit it, but to me a billion dollars still seems like a whole lot of money.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid saying so makes me hopelessly hide bound and old school.

            Why?

            Because the government seems to be passing out billion dollar fines like candy to banks, utility companies, oil companies, automobile manufacturers, and others and it seems to have no discernible impact on their behavior whatsoever.  I’m sure you’ve noticed the same thing.  The government takes a victory lap, a couple of months or maybe a year goes by, and the same corporate culprit is doing the same perp walk to the ATM to pay out another billion dollar fine.  Billion dollar fines seem to have replaced the space on corporate balance sheets where they once wrote “goodwill,” and now it’s an item called “reserve” for a future expenditure for bad behavior.  Cheating consumers has simply become a mundane part of corporate culture.  Rapacious capitalism is no longer an insult, but a rally cry.

            How many gazillions has Bank of America now paid out for example due to the mortgage mess and their acquisition of Countrywide?  It hardly matters it seems as they get ready to pay another $800 million because they couldn’t keep themselves from selling non-existent products to their credit card holders.  One financial institution after another these days from HSBC to storied European banks are lining up to pay huge, billion plus fines for laundering money for Iran and other countries under sanctions by the international community.  JP Morgan Chase, only a few years ago was basking in arrogance with financial folks hanging on Jamie Dimon’s every word, but the number of fines it has paid for cheating and stealing from its customers makes him seem like the boss for a serial criminal mob.  Citicorp is running around in crisis having failed a “stress test,” not because they want to get a good grade on Wall Street it seems, but largely because they may be the only big bank fine payer not able to increase the dividend to their investors, and of course having somehow lost $400 million through their Mexican subsidiary they are claiming fraud, and the government is investigating, what else, but money laundering to drug cartels in that country.

            But speaking of a criminal enterprise, how about Wall Street itself?  I’m more than half-way through Michael Lewis’ new book called Flash Boys, where the real story is about the billions that some companies are making and that all of the big banks are abetting of front-running stock trades through high-frequency trading , which is of course totally illegal,.  And, yes, the FBI is now investigating, and the SEC is embarrassed, and the Attorney-General of New York State is letting subpoenas rain down like tickertape on Wall Street, but all that means is that the outcome of this latest scandal is likely to be, yes, you know, more fines!   An analysis of super-investor Warren Buffet’s portfolio over the last 5 years says he has even underperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index.  Friends, if he can’t beat the house on Wall Street in the biggest gambling casino in the world, you know on one else has a fair chance.

What’s the answer?  If it’s not fines, is it jail?  Hardly, since the big whales only offer up the small fry to do time. 

It’s time to clean house, but it looks like the walls are so rotten and the foundation is so shot, that it’s gut rehab time, but from top to bottom there doesn’t seem to be anyone willing and able to take on the job.

What a heckuva a mess!  Seems like if we have five dollars we might as well hide it in our shoe and take our chances on street crime, since no one seems able to stop Wall Street crime.

Remembering Elena Hanggi, Jack Lavey, and the Wilbur Mills Expressway Fight

ACORN President Elena Hanggi leads marchers.Rep National Convene Dallas, Republicans in 1984.

ACORN President Elena Hanggi leads marchers. Republican  National Convention Dallas  in 1984.

New Orleans  The obituary for Elena Hanggi Giddings said so little that it was almost hard for me to believe that this was the same woman I knew so well and so long.  Her stint as chair of the regional advisory board of the Federal Home Loan Bank in Dallas was acknowledged, along with her graduation from law school, her four daughters, and her grandchildren.  Not that these brief notes weren’t true, but they were really mere footnotes to the real courage and accomplishment of this woman.  She never practiced law, and her time with the Federal Home Loan folks came as a result of her having been the third national president of ACORN in the 1980s and the last from Arkansas where she served several terms before joining the staff with the Institute for Social Justice, where she specialized in training other grassroots elected leaders within the organization. 

            Elena was beloved by ACORN members and the reason was always clear.  Her story was so many of their stories, and she told it well and from the heart. She painted the story of her life as that of a silent, housewife, whose only opinions were those expressed at her own kitchen table, until two things happened almost at the same time.  First, she was doorknocked by an ACORN organizer named Barbara Friedman, over and over again, until she was literally pried out of kitchen to a meeting of the newly formed ACORN community organization in her neighborhood, and worked up the courage in a cold sweat and total panic, to say something at the meeting about what concerned her and was shocked to find her own voice and the support of her neighbors.  Secondly, the plans of politicos and real estate moguls to divide the city, racially and economically, with an expressway in order to cut 3 minutes of commuting time to the western suburbs where they wanted to make their fortunes would run right through her family home not far from McArthur Park and right smack in the path of the expressway, which meant that her new found voice suddenly had to reach the level of a battle cry. 

            In a sadly, tragic coincidence Elena, one of the lead plaintiffs along with ACORN in the suit we finally filed to contest the inadequacy of the environmental statement for the highway and its failure to seriously consider other options, passed away at 72, a week after our lawyer in the Mills case, the great Little Rock labor and civil rights attorney and my longtime friend and comrade, Jack Lavey at 81.  His obituary, not surprisingly, was well written by Ernie Dumas, the former editorial writer for the Arkansas Gazette in those days and weekly columnist still for the Arkansas Times, so I can add little to that save, “amen.”  Even in Little Rock, it is probably less ironic that simply a continuing statement of fact that a peoples’ leader’s passing should be barely noted next to that of a practicing lawyer of the bar.

            Nonetheless, as critical as a lawyer’s skill, and Jack’s was far reaching, and as deep as his commitment to social justice, and my debts will never be fully paid to him, because he never said, “no,” to any request for help or representation or advice that I ever made to him, it is the courage of an Elena Hanggi and so many leaders that emerge like her, and the unfathomable depth of her will and the magical power of silenced voices that rise with work, discipline, and magic to break the bonds of silence and roar with anger, accepting the call to change everything in their lives in order to fight with their people for justice. 

            I watched Elena find her voice and a lifetime cause.  I watched her not back down to police in Chicago at a national march and find herself hauled away to jail.  I watched people rise to their feet when she gave the call to action to thousands with rage and tears in her voice.  I witnessed both her pride and terror when she and other leaders were arrested for holding signs in a Congressional hearing and faced jail for the protest.  I sat over many years at her kitchen table myself, and I knew her family, her hopes, dreams, fears, and struggle as a person, a woman, and a worker to find her true self and live past the limits caging her. 

            There are no replacements for leaders like Elena and peoples’ servants like Jack, but for their sakes, as long as the fight for justice, freedom, and equality is waged, it is all of our jobs to continue in the struggle and to help find others to follow in their footsteps.  We owe it to them.  We owe it to ourselves.         

How in FCC World Can Workers’ News Not be News?

tumblr_static_workersindependentnewsNew Orleans   The Workers Independent News has been around a long time, pushing on a couple of decades.  Supported by unions and heard on about 175 radio stations around the country, including soon on the KABF Labor Show produced by Local 100 of the United Labor Unions, WIN is widely recognized for its value in amplifying the often unheard voice of labor for tens of thousands of listeners around the country.  We don’t have many institutions or news outlets like WIN, so it’s important to protect the ones we have.

            Talking to Frank Emspak, the WIN Executive Producer, recently about how to extend the reach of WIN into radio markets throughout the South and West where they are less well known, I asked him what he was referring to in an earlier comment he had made about trouble with the FCC.  Not being a broadcaster, how could WIN get on the wrong side of the FCC?   Well, the answer turns out to be somewhere between a ricochet and a low blow.

            It seems that one of WIN’s radio outlets in Chicago was running their news and did not identify the fact that the WIN report was being paid for by WIN itself rather than being a direct news production of the station.  Someone filed a complaint in 2009 and finally in February of 2014, almost 5 years later, the FCC slapped a $40,000 fine on the station, WLS.  The issue is not about the fine.  Fair is fair, and WLS should have identified all of the episodes as having been sponsored by WIN itself, and some were, and some weren’t.  

            The FCC didn’t stop there, but then in its opinion, gratuitously attacked WIN as not being journalism at all.   Here’s what they said:

the Commission “considered the nature, circumstances, and gravity of the violations in noting that the announcements in question were formatted and presented as news” (p. 7), and chastised WLS for not correcting the record: “e.g. broadcast announcements notifying listeners that the [eleven] 90-second advertisements previously aired were not, in fact, news stories…the station’s listeners were exposed to material that appeared to be objective news stories deprived of the knowledge that the material was, in fact, prepared to convey the particular point of view of the organization that paid…the Licensee…to air it.”  

            Emspak and others are clear.  This is a freedom of speech issue in their view, plain and simple, and an attack on journalism as being biased simply because it focuses on workers and labor issues.

            The FCC is trying to impugn them essentially because they paid to run some of their spots in the Chicago market where they weren’t being heard, and that’s where WIN was caught on the horns of a dilemma.  Supported by some large unions like AFSCME, the Teamsters, the Teachers, and the Electricians, the value of the news they produce is enhanced if they can be heard in big labor markets, like Chicago, so not having subscribers there, they actually paid WLS to run their news, so that they could be heard.  Grabbing that thin reed, the FCC wants to argue that “listeners were exposed to material that appeared to be objective news stories” in a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” argument.

            It seems that if the FCC wants to really start policing whether or not all the news that’s heard on the radio is really objective, that would be a full time job, and they need to get on it, but trying to silence one of the few news outlets nationally for workers is way outside their scope.  If they have this much energy, maybe they could do something about stopping Comcast from trying to monopolize cable and the internet, you know, do their real job, rather than doing some “make work” project like going after workers and silencing their voices.

Before We’re Flooded with Big Money, Let’s Build a Party Boat

WE-AA296_ELECTI_D_20120426165741New Orleans   It can’t be a surprise that the Republican, rightwing majority in the Roberts’ Supreme Court looked for a minute at the law and a long time at the galloping growth of the rich and advancing inequality, and decided to follow the money.   In a 5-4 decision the Supremes voted to unleash some of the last thin ropes holding the rich at the dock from drowning the American federal election political system.  My conclusion is simple:  if we can’t beat them, and we can’t outspend them, it’s time to build a party, so we have our own boat that can ride these waves.

            For a couple of minutes there are still limits on what the rich can give individual candidates, political committees, and party entities.  The real impact of this decision is that the rich can double down and bundle bigger checks to max out in aggregate terms.  As the Times calculated:

The House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, for example, could in theory approach a donor seeking to help Democrats win control of the House of Representatives, and solicit as much as $2.3 million — $5,200 for each Democratic candidate in every House race, plus a contribution to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  A donor could also, in theory, give $5,000 per year to every political action committee currently registered with the Federal Election Committee. That would total more than $13 million, versus the $74,600 allowed under the existing aggregate cap.

            Of course these figures are already wrong, because before the month is over, I’ll bet real money that we’ll see a tsunami of new political action committees registered before the FEC, so a $13 million cap today could be $20, $30, or $50 million before the Presidential election in 2016.  Count on it!

            But, let’s face the facts.  Building political parties is way better than building these super-PACs that are the playthings of the Karl Rove’s and Koch Brothers.  Better to be a party animal than a rich man’s watch fob. 

            We need to build our own party.  There are so many rich people these days, that if somebody talks to enough of them, the odds finally have be in our favorite that we can find some that think like we do and would invest in building a political party for progressives and finance a national network of political committees to push for change.  It would mean a lot of folks writing million dollar checks but if we were really building a party and not just outfitting some pretty boys and girls with outsized ambitions, those would be investments in permanent capacity.

            Whenever I talk to my friend and longtime comrade Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party a part of the conversation inevitably is about his constant worries about the Herculean tasks of raising money to build a national party.  Well, the Supreme Court may have plunged the knife into the democracy, but they just gave a big boost to the Working Families’ Party or any other good idea for a political formation any of you might have, because you have to have a horse to beat a horse, and at least WFP is already in the field.  The rest of us need to start organizing our political committees as fast as we can, because, believe me, all of the lawyers on K-Street are drafting the boilerplate this week, so we best be putting our party boats on the money ocean and pushing the throttle up as far as it will go if we want to have a voice that can be heard over the stormy seas and giant waves that are coming.

Finally, Lead Paint Poisoners Being Brought to Justice

lead-paint-poisoning-02New Orleans   Having been part of a multi-year, ultimately unsuccessful campaign to force Sherwin-Williams to mitigate the damage its production of lead paint had done to low-and-moderate income communities and tens of thousands of innocent children who were poisoned by the company, I had followed closely the litigation against Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries, and ConAgra seeking some justice, no matter how delayed.   News that the companies had finally dropped their appeal on a losing decision in California on April Fools’ Day forced me to look twice to make sure this was the real deal.

            You haven’t heard much about this suit and for sure it was not reported in any of your daily papers, but this is potentially huge.  So, here’s the story so you can catch up quickly.  

            Ten California cities including Los Angeles and San Diego among others sued a bunch of the original lead paint manufacturers for more than a billion dollars for continuing cases involving lead paint damage for children and others.   The California legislature determined that there were 3.5 million homes within the ten cities built before 1978, when lead paint was banned.  Furthermore evidence established that the companies have known there were dangers from lead paint poisoning since the 1930’s, so there were no virgins in the courtroom.  The cases are all brought forward based on the argument that the threat of lead poisoning to children qualifies as a “public nuisance.”  In California, the cities were looking for $1.3 billion for inspections and remediation. 

The companies felt they were on a winning streak having beaten back similar challenges in seven states earlier where cases were either dismissed or rejected in Ohio, Rhode Island, Missouri, New Jersey, Illinois, New York, and Wisconsin.  In December of 2013, a California Superior Court Judge Kleinberg ruled in San Jose.  He let a couple of companies off the hook like Dupont and ARCO for example based on the fact that they didn’t seem to have promoted lead paint in these specific cities, but rejected the overall defense as little more than statistics and assessed a $1.1 billion price tag on what the remaining companies would have to pony up.  Los Angeles would be the biggest winner, collecting over $600 million of the settlement.

The companies at the time circled the wagons as they always have done in the past, all of which made their surrender in April and waving the white flag all the more shocking, so hip-hip-hooray for California and relief is on the way for children there.

Why did they not appeal?  They didn’t suddenly get religion.  It looks more like the fact that analysts were hammering the stock prices for the companies, depressing their value, as long as the suit hung fire, which with an appeal could have been years.  Essentially, it looks to me like they simply swallowed a bitter billion dollar pill figuring it would go down more smoothly than multi-billion dollar losses for the total value of their companies while the litigation was pending.

But, what about the rest of the country?  The companies undoubtedly are hoping that this defeat is suffered in silence.  Hopefully, desperate victims and hungry lawyers can smell either justice or money in the air and saddle up to take on the fight in earnest once again.

As station manager of KABF (www.kabf.org) give us some feedback on new releases, enjoy and let us know what you like!  Where Have All the Flowers Gone

 

Midterms Looking Very Bad

Nate Silver

Nate Silver

New Orleans    About the best thing that Democrats can say these days is that November is still seven months away and that anything can happen in politics in that time.  True that, but otherwise for Democrats facing the mid-term elections, if it weren’t for bad news, they wouldn’t have any news at all.

            Master big data man, Nate Silver, of the 538 blog who has become legendary in recent elections for calling the numbers and the states on the electoral count, is saying that Republicans are in the lead to take the Senate. 

            The nonprofit Pew Research polls find Democrats behind in three critical categories among independents, whites, and millennials.  Republicans are leading 47 to 38% among independents who are often the tie breakers.  Where millennials were solidly with the Democrats a couple of years ago with 59% support they are now down to 49%.  Among white voters Democrats are now behind 38 to 53%. 

Oh, and worse, whites are expected to be 80% of the midterm electorate.  

You want more bad news, where Democrats are leading heavily among Latinos but of course not having delivered on immigration reform, voter participation and registration has declined among Latinos in both the 2010 and 2012 elections and is expected to continue to fall for the 2014 midterms.

And to put a cherry on top of all of this the President’s popularity is only at 44%.

Can massive voter turnout turn all of this around?  Sure, but usually the falloff of voter participation drops from over 60% of eligible voters in presidential elections down to less than 50% in the midterms, and, did I already mention that 80% of those voters are expected to be white as a sheet?

The discouraging news in the Senate is also based on where the contests are taking place in states where Republicans are rising like Arkansas, Alaska, and of course Louisiana.  A story in the Wall Street Journal reflecting on Senator Mary Landrieu’s frighteningly close ties to the oil and gas industry in her home state, seemed to argue that she could pull it out, but to say something is a tight bet is different from a sure thing.

Meanwhile other commentators are pitching the emerging battle as essentially the Koch brothers, who are already committing money tens of millions in pushing the Senate buttons, against Obama. 

The one thing that recent months seem to have produced in startling fashion is voter fatigue even though there were no elections since these days we seem to all be victims of eternal campaigning.

There’s time for a turnaround of course, but someone has to grip the wheel and for progressives I get the sense that no one is in the driver seat.