“An Enron End Run”: Using Expensive Legal Claims As Leverage, Top Enron Fraudster Reaches Deal To Slash Sentence
Even when Jeffrey Skilling was first sentenced for conspiring in one of the largest corporate fraud schemes in modern history, he received less jail time than some low-level drug offenders sentenced to harsh mandatory minimums. But this week, Skilling reached a deal with the Department of Justice to cut his 24-year sentence to as little as 14 years, in exchange for abandoning the onslaught of appeals he has launched at his own expense. Reuters reports:
The agreement … could result in Skilling’s freedom in late 2018, with good behavior.
In exchange, Skilling, 59, who has long maintained his innocence, agreed to stop appealing his conviction. The agreement would also allow more than $40 million seized from him to be freed up for distribution to Enron fraud victims.
A resentencing became necessary after a federal appeals court upheld Skilling’s conviction but found the original sentence too harsh.
Once ranked seventh on the Fortune 500 list of large U.S. companies, Enron went bankrupt on December 2, 2001 in an accounting scandal that remains one of the largest and most infamous U.S. corporate meltdowns.
Thousands of workers lost their jobs and retirement savings, and images were beamed around the globe of staff carrying possessions out of Enron’s downtown Houston office tower, past the company’s “crooked E” logo.
Even in 2006, when Skilling was first sentenced, his legal defense was deemed one of the most expensive in history at $65 million, and in the years since he has taken his case to the Supreme Court and back on appeal after appeal. By settling, the Department of Justice not only saved itself the considerable expense of continuing this legal battle; it also gets access to the more than $40 million in seized assets Skilling had previously not agreed to surrender. As a consequence of these negotiations, Skilling’s sentence is even more disparate from the 25-year-plus sentences of drug defendants charged for low-level offenses like selling their own pain pills to an undercover informant.
If Skilling’s reduced sentence is approved by a judge during his June hearing, as is likely, Skilling will nonetheless not have had an ideal run with the criminal justice system. His lawyers made a persuasive argument that the statute initially used to convict him was overly broad. And his sentence was disproportionately high relative to alleged Enron scandal mastermind Andrew Fastow, who got only six years in prison after he testified against both Skilling and Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay. But more severe versions of these problems plague countless criminal defendants, who, rather than having the leverage to shorten their sentence or the legal resources to take down a statute, are coerced into plea deals under threat of draconian prison terms.
By: Nicole Flatow, Think Progress, May 10, 2013
“The Story Of Our Time”: The Most Crucial Thing To Understand Is The Economy Is Not Like An Individual Family.
Those of us who have spent years arguing against premature fiscal austerity have just had a good two weeks. Academic studies that supposedly justified austerity have lost credibility; hard-liners in the European Commission and elsewhere have softened their rhetoric. The tone of the conversation has definitely changed.
My sense, however, is that many people still don’t understand what this is all about. So this seems like a good time to offer a sort of refresher on the nature of our economic woes, and why this remains a very bad time for spending cuts.
Let’s start with what may be the most crucial thing to understand: the economy is not like an individual family.
Families earn what they can, and spend as much as they think prudent; spending and earning opportunities are two different things. In the economy as a whole, however, income and spending are interdependent: my spending is your income, and your spending is my income. If both of us slash spending at the same time, both of our incomes will fall too.
And that’s what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. Many people suddenly cut spending, either because they chose to or because their creditors forced them to; meanwhile, not many people were able or willing to spend more. The result was a plunge in incomes that also caused a plunge in employment, creating the depression that persists to this day.
Why did spending plunge? Mainly because of a burst housing bubble and an overhang of private-sector debt — but if you ask me, people talk too much about what went wrong during the boom years and not enough about what we should be doing now. For no matter how lurid the excesses of the past, there’s no good reason that we should pay for them with year after year of mass unemployment.
So what could we do to reduce unemployment? The answer is, this is a time for above-normal government spending, to sustain the economy until the private sector is willing to spend again. The crucial point is that under current conditions, the government is not, repeat not, in competition with the private sector. Government spending doesn’t divert resources away from private uses; it puts unemployed resources to work. Government borrowing doesn’t crowd out private investment; it mobilizes funds that would otherwise go unused.
Now, just to be clear, this is not a case for more government spending and larger budget deficits under all circumstances — and the claim that people like me always want bigger deficits is just false. For the economy isn’t always like this — in fact, situations like the one we’re in are fairly rare. By all means let’s try to reduce deficits and bring down government indebtedness once normal conditions return and the economy is no longer depressed. But right now we’re still dealing with the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. This is no time for austerity.
O.K., I’ve just given you a story, but why should you believe it? There are, after all, people who insist that the real problem is on the economy’s supply side: that workers lack the skills they need, or that unemployment insurance has destroyed the incentive to work, or that the looming menace of universal health care is preventing hiring, or whatever. How do we know that they’re wrong?
Well, I could go on at length on this topic, but just look at the predictions the two sides in this debate have made. People like me predicted right from the start that large budget deficits would have little effect on interest rates, that large-scale “money printing” by the Fed (not a good description of actual Fed policy, but never mind) wouldn’t be inflationary, that austerity policies would lead to terrible economic downturns. The other side jeered, insisting that interest rates would skyrocket and that austerity would actually lead to economic expansion. Ask bond traders, or the suffering populations of Spain, Portugal and so on, how it actually turned out.
Is the story really that simple, and would it really be that easy to end the scourge of unemployment? Yes — but powerful people don’t want to believe it. Some of them have a visceral sense that suffering is good, that we must pay a price for past sins (even if the sinners then and the sufferers now are very different groups of people). Some of them see the crisis as an opportunity to dismantle the social safety net. And just about everyone in the policy elite takes cues from a wealthy minority that isn’t actually feeling much pain.
What has happened now, however, is that the drive for austerity has lost its intellectual fig leaf, and stands exposed as the expression of prejudice, opportunism and class interest it always was. And maybe, just maybe, that sudden exposure will give us a chance to start doing something about the depression we’re in.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 28, 2013
The Middle Class is in a funk, its view of the future growing dim as fear rolls in like a storm.
An Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll released Thursday found that while most Americans (56 percent) hold out hope that they‘ll be in a higher class at some point, even more Americans (59 percent) are worried about falling out of their current class over the next few years. In fact, more than eight in 10 Americans believe that more people have fallen out of the middle class than moved into it in the past few years.
The poll paints a picture of a group that is scared to death about its station in life.
By the way, 58 percent of respondents in the poll viewed themselves as either middle class (46 percent) or upper middle class (12 percent).
According to the poll, Americans see a middle class with less opportunity to get ahead, less job security and less disposable income than the middle class of previous generations.
Respondents were most likely (52 percent) to say that losing a job would put them at the greatest risk of falling out of their current class, followed by an unexpected illness or injury in the family.
Most of those polled believe that higher education is the key to staying in the middle class, but many worry about its prohibitive cost and inaccessibility.
And who did most of them say is responsible for making it worse for the middle class? Congress, chief executives of major corporations and big financial institutions.
Of those who blame politicians, there is some evidence that Republicans get more of the blame than Democrats. A CNN/ORC poll released last month found that 32 percent of respondents thought that Democrats favor the middle class compared with 27 percent who believed the same of Republicans. Sixty-eight percent of those polled believed that Republicans favor the wealthy, compared with 24 percent who believed that Democrats do.
This anxiety about a shrinking middle class is understandable.
A Pew Research Center study, “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” released in August, found that “since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and shed some — but by no means all — of its characteristic faith in the future.”
According to the report, “Fully 85 percent of self-described middle-class adults say it is more difficult now than it was a decade ago for middle-class people to maintain their standard of living.”
The report continued:
“Their downbeat take on their economic situation comes at the end of a decade in which, for the first time since the end of World War II, mean family incomes declined for Americans in all income tiers. But the middle-income tier — defined in this Pew Research analysis as all adults whose annual household income is two-thirds to double the national median — is the only one that also shrunk in size, a trend that has continued over the past four decades.”
It’s important to note that many of the people who describe themselves as middle class would not be placed under that rubric by most objective observers. For instance, the Pew study found that 35 percent of people making $30,000 and under and 46 percent of those making $100,000 and over self-identified as middle class. (Meantime, six percent of those making $30,000 and under self-identified as upper class, and six percent of those making $100,000 and over self-identified as lower class. Go figure.)
As Pew pointed out, over the last decade, “middle-tier median household income” fell and median net worth plummeted, and people in the middle class said it was becoming harder to maintain their lifestyles.
To add insult to injury, another Pew report, released this week, found that “during the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent.”
As The Washington Post reported in September after the release of a frightening Census report: “The vise on the middle class tightened last year, driving down its share of the income pie as the number of Americans in poverty leveled off and the most affluent households saw their portion grow.”
The wealthy have come surging back, riding record stock market highs, but many in the middle class are at best treading water and at worst sinking.
In his State of the Union speech in February, President Obama said that the “true engine of America’s economic growth” is “a rising, thriving middle class.”
It certainly looks as if that engine has stalled.
By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 27, 2013
Last night, after just several days of complaints from flyers—who had to deal with airline delays—the Senate rushed to pass the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, which give the Federal Aviation Administration the power to avoid sequestration by shifting money and avoiding furloughs for air traffic controllers. The House did the same today. Given the number of flights, and the time lost from delays, it’s a decent solution to a real problem.
It’s also incredibly frustrating.
The sequester has been a disaster. The indiscriminate cuts to discretionary spending have harmed kids in Head Start, workers on unemployment benefits, and families in Section 8 housing. It’s on track to remove tens of billions from the economy, both in spending cuts and in lost output, as people lose jobs and cut back on their consumption.
But none of this has moved Congress to act. Instead, Republicans continue to use the sequester as a political tool, attacking Obama for cutting spending they like, and touting it when it cuts spending they don’t.
That is, until the sequester begins to harm valuable constituents, i.e., businesspeople and other frequent flyers affected by the FAA furloughs. Then, Congress—and Republicans in particular—will rush to fix the damage. It doesn’t help that this comes just a day after lawmakers skipped a hearing on mass, long-term unemployment—one of the key problems facing the country.
Whenever pundits or politicians call for cuts to the social-safety net, it usually includes a pitch for “shared sacrifice.” The idea is appealing; if we have to make painful decisions, it’s only fair if everyone is affected. But the fact is that there is no shared sacrifice. As soon as the wealthy and connected begin to feel discomfort, Congress is there, ready to address their concerns.
If only the rest of us were so lucky.
By: Jamelle Bouie, The American Prospect, April 26, 2013
“Two America’s Truer Now Than Ever”: Perishing On A Lonely Island Of Poverty In The Midst Of A Vast Ocean Of Material Prosperity
You may think you know about Martin Luther King, Jr., but there is much about the man and his message we have conveniently forgotten. He was a prophet, like Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah of old, calling kings and plutocrats to account — speaking truth to power.
King was only 39 when he was murdered in Memphis 45 years ago, on April 4th, 1968. The 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery were behind him. So was the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In the last year of his life, as he moved toward Memphis and his death, he announced what he called the Poor People’s Campaign, a “multi-racial army” that would come to Washington, build an encampment and demand from Congress an “Economic Bill of Rights” for all Americans — black, white, or brown. He had long known that the fight for racial equality could not be separated from the need for economic equity — fairness for all, including working people and the poor.
Martin Luther King, Jr., had more than a dream — he envisioned what America could be, if only it lived up to its promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for each and every citizen. That’s what we have conveniently forgotten as the years have passed and his reality has slowly been shrouded in the marble monuments of sainthood.
But read part of the speech Dr. King made at Stanford University in 1967, a year before his assassination and marvel at how relevant his words remain:
“There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. And in a sense this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and dignity for their spirits…
“…Tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infected vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Breathtakingly prescient words as we look around us at a society where the chasm between the super-rich and poor is wider and deeper than ever. According to a Department of Housing and Urban Development press release, “On a single night last January, 633,782 people were homeless in the United States.” The Institute for Policy Studies’ online weekly “Too Much” notes that single-room-occupancy shelter rates run about $558 per month and quotes analyst Paul Buchheit, who says that at that rate, “Any one of America’s ten richest collected enough in 2012 income to pay an entire year’s rent for all of America’s homeless.”
But why rent when you can buy? “Too Much” also reports that the widow of recently deceased financier Martin Zweig “amid a Manhattan luxury boom” has placed their apartment at the top of the posh Pierre Hotel on the market for $125 million: “A sale at that price would set a new New York record for a luxury personal residence, more than $30 million over the current real estate high marks.”
Meanwhile, a new briefing paper from the advocacy group National Employment Law Project (NELP) finds there are 27 million unemployed or underemployed workers in the U.S. labor force, including “not only the unemployed counted by official jobs reports, but also the eight million part-time workers who would rather be working full-time and the 6.8 million discouraged workers who want to work but who have stopped looking altogether.” Five years after the financial meltdown, “the average duration of unemployment remains at least twice that of any other recession since the 1950s.”
And if you think austerity’s a good idea, NELP estimates that, “Taken together, the ‘sequester’ and other budget-cutting policies will likely slow GDP this year by 2.1 percentage points, costing the U.S. economy over 2.4 million jobs.”
Walmart’s one of those companies laying people off, but according to the website Business Insider, the mega-chain’s CEO Michael Duke gets paid 1,034 times more than his average worker. Matter of fact, “In the past 30 years, compensation for chief executives in America has increased 127 times faster than the average worker’s salary.”
Two Americas indeed.
By: Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, Moyers and Company, April 10, 2013