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“Our Democracy Is Drowning In Big Money”: JP Morgan Chase, The Foreign Corrupt Practice Act, And The Corruption Of America

The Justice Department has just obtained documents showing that JPMorgan Chase, Wall Street’s biggest bank, has been hiring the children of China’s ruling elite in order to secure “existing and potential business opportunities” from Chinese government-run companies. “You all know I have always been a big believer of the Sons and Daughters program,” says one JP Morgan executive in an email, because “it almost has a linear relationship” to winning assignments to advise Chinese companies. The documents even include spreadsheets that list the bank’s “track record” for converting hires into business deals.

It’s a serious offense. But let’s get real. How different is bribing China’s “princelings,” as they’re called there, from Wall Street’s ongoing program of hiring departing U.S. Treasury officials, presumably in order to grease the wheels of official Washington? Timothy Geithner, Obama’s first Treasury Secretary, is now president of the private-equity firm Warburg Pincus; Obama’s budget director Peter Orszag is now a top executive at Citigroup.

Or, for that matter, how different is what JP Morgan did in China from Wall Street’s habit of hiring the children of powerful American politicians? (I don’t mean to suggest Chelsea Clinton got her hedge-fund job at Avenue Capital LLC, where she worked from 2006 to 2009, on the basis of anything other than her financial talents.)

And how much worse is JP Morgan’s putative offense in China than the torrent of money JP Morgan and every other major Wall Street bank is pouring into the campaign coffers of American politicians — making the Street one of the major backers of Democrats as well as Republicans?

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, under which JP Morgan could be indicted for the favors it has bestowed in China, is quite strict. It prohibits American companies from paying money or offering anything of value to foreign officials for the purpose of “securing any improper advantage.” Hiring one of their children can certainly qualify as a gift, even without any direct benefit to the official.

JP Morgan couldn’t even defend itself by arguing it didn’t make any particular deal or get any specific advantage as a result of the hires. Under the Act, the gift doesn’t have to be linked to any particular benefit to the American firm as long as it’s intended to generate an advantage its competitors don’t enjoy.

Compared to this, corruption of American officials is a breeze.  Consider, for example, Countrywide Financial’s generous “Friends of Angelo” lending program, named after its chief executive, Angelo R. Mozilo, that gave discounted mortgages to influential members of Congress and their staffs before the housing bubble burst. No criminal or civil charges have ever been filed related to these loans.

Even before the Supreme Court’s shameful 2010 “Citizens United” decision — equating corporations with human beings under the First Amendment, and thereby shielding much corporate political spending – Republican appointees to the Court had done everything they could to blunt anti-bribery laws in the United States. In 1999, in “United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers,” Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, interpreted an anti-bribery law so loosely as to allow corporations to give gifts to public officials unless the gifts are linked to specific policies.

We don’t even require that American corporations disclose to their own shareholders the largesse they bestow on our politicians. Last year around this time, when the Securities and Exchange Commission released its 2013 to-do list, it signaled it might formally propose a rule to require corporations to disclose their political spending. The idea had attracted more than 600,000 mostly favorable comments from the public, a record response for the agency.

But the idea mysteriously slipped off the 2014 agenda released last week, without explanation. Could it have anything to do with the fact that, soon after becoming SEC chair last April, Mary Jo White was pressed by Republican lawmakers to abandon the idea, which was fiercely opposed by business groups.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is important, and JP Morgan should be nailed for bribing Chinese officials. But, if you’ll pardon me for asking, why isn’t there a Domestic Corrupt Practices Act?

Never before has so much U.S. corporate and Wall-Street money poured into our nation’s capital, as well as into our state capitals. Never before have so many Washington officials taken jobs in corporations, lobbying firms, trade associations, and on the Street immediately after leaving office. Our democracy is drowning in big money.

Corruption is corruption, and bribery is bribery, in whatever country or language it’s transacted in.

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, December 8, 2013

December 9, 2013 Posted by | Corporations, Democracy | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Lies That Will Kill America”: Pundits Run To The Defense Of A Massive Bank And Other Tales Of The Lapdog Media

Here in Manhattan the other day, you couldn’t miss it — the big bold headline across the front page of the tabloid New York Post,  screaming one of those sick, slick lies that are a trademark of Rupert Murdoch’s right wing media empire. There was Uncle Sam, brandishing a revolver and wearing a burglar’s mask. “UNCLE SCAM,” the headline shouted. “U.S. robs bank of $13 billion.”

Say what?  Pure whitewash, and Murdoch’s minions know it. That $13 billion dollars is the settlement JPMorgan Chase, the country’s biggest bank, is negotiating with the government to settle its own rip-off of American homeowners and investors — those shady practices that five years ago helped trigger the financial meltdown, including manipulating mortgages and sending millions of Americans into bankruptcy or foreclosure.  If anybody’s been robbed it’s not JPMorgan Chase, which can absorb the loss and probably take a tax write-off for at least part of it. No, it’s the American public. In addition to financial heartache we still have been denied the satisfaction of seeing jail time for any of the banksters who put our feet in cement and pushed us off the cliff.

This isn’t the only scandal JPMorgan Chase is juggling. A $6 billion settlement with institutional investors is in the works and criminal charges may still be filed in California.  The bank is under investigation on so many fronts it’s hard to keep them sorted out – everything from deceptive sales in its credit card unit to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme to the criminal manipulation of energy markets and bribing Chinese officials by offering jobs to their kids.

Nor is JPMorgan Chase the only culprit under scrutiny.  Bank of America was found guilty just this week of civil fraud, and a gaggle of other banks is being investigated by the government for mortgage fraud.  No wonder the camp followers at Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, CNBC and other cheerleaders have ganged up to whitewash the banks.  If justice is somehow served, this could be the biggest egg yet across the smug face of unfettered, unchecked, unaccountable capitalism.

One face in particular: Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase. One of Murdoch’s Fox Business News hosts, Charlie Gasparino, claims the Feds are on a witch hunt against Dimon for criticizing President Obama, whose administration, we are told, “is brutally determined and efficient when it comes to squashing those who oppose their policies.”  But hold on: Dimon is a Democrat, said to be Obama’s favorite banker, with so much entree he’s been doing his own negotiating with the attorney general of the United States.

But that’s crony capitalism for you, bipartisan to a fault. Rupert Murdoch has been defending Dimon in his media for a long time. Last spring, when it looked like there might be a stockholders revolt against Dimon, Murdoch was one of many bigwigs who rushed to his defense. He tweeted that JPMorgan would be “up a creek” without Dimon. “One of the smartest, toughest guys around,” Murdoch insisted. Whether Murdoch’s exaltation had an effect or not, Dimon was handily reelected.

Over the last few days, The Wall Street Journal, both Bible and supplicant of high finance as well one of Murdoch’s more reputable publications –at least in its reporting –  echoed the “UNCLE SCAM” indignation of the more lowbrowPost. The government just wants “to appease their left wing populist allies,” its editorial writers raged, with a “political shakedown and wealth-redistribution scheme.” Perhaps, the paper suggested, the White House will distribute some of the JPMorgan Chase penalty to consumers and advocacy groups and “have the checks arrive in swing Congressional districts right before the 2014 election.” We can hear the closet Bolsheviks panting for their handouts now and getting ready to use their phony ID’s to stuff the box on Election Day with multiple illegal ballots .

Such fantasies are all part of the Murdoch News Corp pattern, an unending flow of falsehood and phony populism that in reality serves only the wealthy elite. Fox News is its ministry of misinformation, the fake jewel of the News Corp crown, a 24/7 purveyor of flimflam and the occasional selective truth. Look at the pounding they’ve given Obama’s healthcare reform right from the very start, whether the non-existent death panels or claims that it would cause the highest tax increase in history.

While it’s true that the startup of Obamacare has been plagued by its website nightmare and other problems, Fox News consistently has failed to mention Republican roadblocks that prevented the program from getting proper funding or the fact that so many states ruled by Republican governors and legislatures – more than 30 — have deliberately failed to set up the insurance marketplaces critical to making the new system work. Just the other day, Eric Stern atSalon.com fact-checked a segment on Sean Hannity’s show. “Average Americans are feeling the pain of Obamacare and the healthcare overhaul train wreck,” Hannity declared, “and six of them are here tonight to tell us their stories.”

Eric Stern tracked down each of the Hannity Six and found that while their questions about health reform may have been valid, the answers they received from Hannity or had decided for themselves were not. “I don’t doubt that these six individuals believe that Obamacare is a disaster,” Stern reported. “But none of them had even visited the insurance exchange.”

And there you have the problem: ideology and self-interest trump the facts or even caring about the facts, whether it’s banking, Obamacare or global warming. Ninety seven percent of climate scientists say that climate change is happening and that humans have made it so, but only four in ten Americans realize it’s true. According to a new study in the journal Public Understanding of Science, written by a team that includes Yale University’s Anthony Leiserowitz, the more that people listen to conservative media like Fox News or Limbaugh, the less sure they are that global warming is real. And even worse, the less they trust science.

Such ignorance will kill democracy as surely as the big money that funds and encourages the media outlets, parties and individuals who spew the lies and hate. The ground is all too fertile for those who will only believe whatever best fits their resentment or particular brand of paranoia. It is, as an old song lyric goes, “the self-deception that believes the lie.” The truth will set us free; the lie will make prisoners of us all.

 

By: Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, Salon, Originally Published in Bill Moyers Blog, October 25, 2013

October 26, 2013 Posted by | Big Banks, Democracy, Media | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Fannie Mae Made Me Do It”: JPMorgan Chase Is Too Big To Whine

A new injustice plagues the land, at least according to people who take the side of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and its chief executive officer, Jamie Dimon, after the bank’s tentative agreement to pay a record $13 billion to end civil claims related to its sales of mortgage bonds. The bank and its leader are now — it is claimed — subject to Politically Motivated Prosecution.

This is pointless whining, for three reasons.

First, when pressed, advocates for big banks readily concede that “no one is above the law.” What else can they say in a democracy? When Attorney General Eric Holder and his criminal division chief at the time, Lanny Breuer, suggested last year that very large companies were too big to prosecute, there was even some feeling of embarrassment in the big bank camp -– as well as a great deal of pressure on Holder to walk back his congressional testimony on this point.

Now that charges have been brought and a settlement is almost signed, Dimon’s allies can’t stop complaining.

So no one is above the law, but no charges should be brought? Dimon’s camp wants regulation and law enforcement by lip service, which would just be an invitation to further lawless behavior.

Second, JPMorgan is the largest U.S. bank, and one of the most powerful politically. Dimon met with the attorney general to discuss the charges in September. (He spoke again with Holder at the end of last week.) Most people don’t get such an opportunity — in fact, the Justice Department can’t remember the last time a CEO had this kind of access.

The Supreme Court isn’t known to be anti-business. If there is anything unreasonable or unjustified in the charges, JPMorgan should fight them all the way up.

To suggest that JPMorgan has no legal recourse is to completely misrepresent the way the legal and political systems work. JPMorgan makes big political donations and has powerful protectors in Congress. The bank employs some of the best lawyers, too.

Third, JPMorgan bears responsibility in two ways: the actions by companies it bought (Washington Mutual Inc. and Bear Stearns Cos.) and the actions by JPMorgan itself.

If buying a company could absolve that entity and its employees of all sins, imagine the merger wave we would have.

As Peter Eavis wrote in the New York Times, JPMorgan’s executives knew what they were buying, and expected the kind of legal problems that materialized. After the Washington Mutual deal closed, Dimon said, “There are always uncertainties in deals,” and “our eyes are not closed on this one.”

Assets at both Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual were — justifiably — sharply marked down upon acquisition, presumably to reflect mortgage-related issues.

Blaming the government is a way of saying crisis management by merger isn’t a good idea; creating the largest U.S. bank in this fashion wasn’t such a smart idea for anyone. But at the time, Dimon was keen to make a deal, including one with Federal Reserve financing, in the case of Bear Stearns.

Banking is a regulated industry. But we all observe rules and regulations in our lives. If someone breaks the law, does that mean it is solely the fault of the legislator or the regulator? This is very strange logic.

And “Fannie Mae made me do it,” sounds like a line from Monty Python. But that’s exactly what some of Dimon’s supporters are saying.

More broadly, the list of JPMorgan’s own wrongdoings grows longer and includes illegal foreclosure practices. Nina Strochlic at the Daily Beast calculates that since 2011 the bank has been fined $8 billion (before the latest settlement) in almost a dozen separate instances of illegal and improper behavior. For more background, I recommend Josh Rosner’s recent analysis.

Did Dimon and his colleagues break the law on purpose? Presumably not; otherwise, the board of directors surely would have made a change by now.

Are the allegations of a pattern of illegal behavior by JPMorgan just a politically motivated prosecution, a vast left-wing conspiracy? Anyone making such a claim is just being silly and lacks credibility.

The most plausible explanation is that JPMorgan has become so large and so sprawling that management has lost control. Dimon’s attention to detail and risk management were once legendary. It is impossible to look at him now without also remembering that he carries the London Whale derivatives fiasco on his shoulders. This impression was reinforced last week when JPMorgan admitted to a form of market manipulation in connection with the London Whale (this was a separate settlement with the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission).

At a debate in New York last week, a proponent of big banks argued that the resolution of the London Whale episode showed that the system works.

Was he referring to the system in which our largest bank repeatedly breaks the law, is slapped on the wrist and whines about it?

JPMorgan has lost control of its legal risks. What other risks will it mismanage next?

 

By: Simon Johnson, Featured Post, The National Memo, October 21, 2013

October 25, 2013 Posted by | Big Banks, Financial Institutions | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Armed Robbery Is No Petty Crime “: The $13 Billion JPMorgan Settlement Is A Good Start, Now Someone Should Go To Jail

JPMorgan Chase, the star of mega-banks, is up against the wall at the Justice Department, trying to settle its myriad crimes for $13 billion. That’s real money, even for a trillion-dollar bank. So this is progress. After years of scandalous indifference, the Obama administration appears to have found its backbone.

Better late than never, grumpy citizens can say. But that doesn’t settle the matter. Four years ago, Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware crisply described the more fundamental problem posed by the wantonly reckless behemoths of Wall Street.

“People know that if they rob a bank they will go to jail,” Kaufman said. “Bankers should know that if they rob people they will go to jail too.” Can we hear an amen on that? Not yet. But the complaint Kaufman voiced repeatedly is now on the table. “At the end of the day,” the senator warned, “This is a test of whether we have one justice system in this country or two. If we do not treat a Wall Street firm that defrauded investors of millions of dollars the same way we treat someone who stole $500 from a cash register, then how can we expect our citizens to have any faith in the rule of law?” (See my piece from April 2011, “How Wall Street Crooks Get Out of Jail Free.”)

Attorney General Eric Holder was stung, his reputation severely damaged. His lieutenants in the criminal division explained repeatedly that while the megacrimes seemed obvious, it is fiendishly difficult to locate the people in a huge, complex financial organization who can be successfully prosecuted as criminals. The popular anger did not go away, however, because in JPMorgan’s case the outrages only got larger and more obvious.

So here we are four years later and leading newspapers report that Justice is on the brink of a record-setting settlement—$13 billion. Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan CEO and formerly the president’s favorite banker, has personally negotiated the terms with the attorney general. The Morgan bank started with an offer of $1 billion and quickly raised it to $4 billion. Holder’s office kept saying, no, not enough. According to The New York Times, seven federal agencies are investigating the bank, plus state banking regulators and a couple of foreign governments.

The offenses include an all-star list of duped victims—of mortgage fraud against home-buyers, investor fraud against people and pension funds that purchased the rotten mortgage securities and defrauded the federal agencies (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) that bought the mortgage bonds and applied federal guarantees to them. Nevertheless, if there is no identifiable “criminal” who can be sent to jail, the case could be treated as merely another bureaucratic crime and adjudicated with lots of cash, a very familiar exercise in this era of high-flying capitalist buccaneers and bandits.

But here is the exciting and suspenseful element in this story. Eric Holder and his prosecutors have so far refused to settle on such amicable terms. Federal prosecutors in Sacramento believe they have established the personal linkage—who ordered the dirty deals, who carried them out—that could support criminal indictments of individuals or against the corporate “person” known as JPMorgan Chase. That would be truly unprecedented—a “game changer” in Wall Street/Washington parlance—and with threatening potential for the defendant bank.

In the negotiations, Holder has refused to give Dimon what he seems to want most—an agreement to drop the criminal charge and settle for bigger money instead. That might weaken the storm of private lawsuits already filed by the victims of JPMorgan’s fraudulent profiteering. The star banker kept raising his bid. The AG kept saying no way. Americans should stay tuned and maybe send fan mail to the Justice Department, urging the prosecutors to hang tough.

But you can’t send a bank to jail, can you? No, but you could place it under court supervision and empower a federal judge to order and supervise internal reforms in the megabank, perhaps even downsizing. Does that sound too harsh? If the feds can do this to a corrupt labor union like the Teamsters, why not to an outlaw bank like JPMorgan?

 

By: William Greider, The Nation, October 21, 2013

October 23, 2013 Posted by | Big Banks, Financial Institutions, Wall Street | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“J.P. Morgan, The Man And The Bank”: Bassackwards Justice, Fining Banks Is Not A Crime-Stopper

J.P Morgan was recently socked in the wallet by financial regulators, who levied a fine of nearly a billion bucks against the Wall Street baron for massive illegalities.

Well, not a fine against John Pierpont Morgan, the man. This 19th century robber baron was born to a great banking fortune and, by hook and crook, leveraged it to become the “King of American Finance.” During the Gilded Age, Morgan cornered U.S. financial markets, gained monopoly ownership of railroads, amassed a vast supply of the nation’s gold and used his investment power to create U.S. Steel and take control of that market.

From his earliest days in high finance, Morgan was a hustler who often traded on the shady side. In the Civil War, for example, his family bought his way out of military duty, but he saw another way to serve. Himself, that is. Morgan bought defective rifles for $3.50 each and sold them to a general in the Union Army for $22 each. The rifles blew off soldiers’ thumbs, but Morgan pleaded ignorance, and government investigators graciously absolved the young, wealthy, well-connected financier of any fault.

That seems to have set a pattern for his lifetime of antitrust violations, union busting and other over-the-edge profiteering practices. He drew numerous official charges — but of course, he never did any jail time.

Moving the clock forward, we come to JPMorgan Chase, today’s financial powerhouse bearing J.P.’s name. The bank also inherited his pattern of committing multiple illegalities — and walking away scot-free. Oh sure, the bank was hit with that billion-dollar fine, but that’s hardly devastating to a behemoth that hauled in $6.5 billion in just the previous three months. Besides, note that not a single one of the top bankers who committed gross wrongdoing was charged or even fired — much less sent to jail. Fining banks is not a crime-stopper, for banks don’t commit crimes. Bankers do. And they won’t ever stop if they don’t have to pay for their crimes.

In fact, someone should make a movie about JPM’s honchos and title it Bankers Gone Wild! Not long ago, America’s biggest Wall Street empire was hailed as a paragon of financial integrity. But today it’s a house of crime, currently under investigation for management illegalities by seven federal agencies, several states and two foreign nations.

But there’s an additional “crime” taking place, hidden within that billion-dollar fine that regulators levied on the bank for top-level mismanagement, which caused shareholders to lose a whopping $6 billion in a trade scandal last year. Media reports say the bank agreed to pay the fine to settle those charges, but when it’s reported that “the bank” will pony up a billion dollars, who exactly is that?

Not the bankers who committed the illegalities, but Chase’s shareholders. Wow, how’s that for a raw deal? The money the bankers lost belonged to shareholders, yet they’re being socked for another billion to cover the bankers’ fine. Imagine if you got burglarized, then were fined for being burglarized! As one law professor said, “It’s not just adding insult to injury, it’s adding injury to injury.”

Federal regulators say it’s easier to get bankers to settle a case if they can hand the fine to shareholders, who don’t even get a say in the decision. But going after the bankers, they claim, would require a jury trial — and jurors might not convict.

Huh? What kind of bassackwards justice is that? Besides, it’s ridiculous to think that jurors wouldn’t jump at the chance to convict Wall Street banksters. That’s a jury I’d like to serve on. Wouldn’t you? Nail a couple of them, and that’d chill all of their wild finagling.

 

By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, October 20, 2013

October 21, 2013 Posted by | Big Banks, Financial Institutions, Wall Street | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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