2011 - %3, September

The Fall-Out Is Far From Over in Mortgageland

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 12:28 PM EDT

When it comes to the mortgage fraud fiasco, the federal government has a message for the nation's biggest banks: You're not out of the woods yet.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is prepping lawsuits against more than a dozen large banks for allegedly deceiving the government on the quality of mortgage securities that the banks peddled during the housing bubbble, the New York Times reports. Those banks include JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and Bank of America, the nation's largest banking institution.

At the crux of the suits is this: The banks, which put together the securities using piles of home loans and later sold huge amounts of these securities to Fannie and Freddie, failed to properly vet the quality of the loans and missed evidence of falsified borrower income figures. In short, the feds say, the banks didn't do their homework as required by securities law.

Fannie and Freddie—that is to say, the taxpayers—lost $30 billion partly because of these disastrous securities deals, according to the Times.

Here's more:

The impending litigation underscores how almost exactly three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the beginning of a financial crisis caused in large part by subprime lending, the legal fallout is mounting.

Besides the angry investors, 50 state attorneys general are in the final stages of negotiating a settlement to address abuses by the largest mortgage servicers, including Bank of America, JPMorgan, and Citigroup. The attorneys general, as well as federal officials, are pressing the banks to pay at least $20 billion in that case, with much of the money earmarked to reduce mortgages of homeowners facing foreclosure.

And last month, the insurance giant American International Group filed a $10 billion suit against Bank of America, accusing the bank and its Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch units of misrepresenting the quality of mortgages that backed the securities AIG bought.

Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan all declined to comment. Frank Kelly, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank, said, "We can't comment on a suit that we haven’t seen and hasn’t been filed yet."

As Yves Smith points out, the suits aren't a surprise; FHFA chief Ed DeMarico has been eyeing such litigation for more than a year. But they come at a difficult time for the banks and the housing industry.

There's the massive state attorneys general settlement on the way. Then there's New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a favorite of consumer advocates who was kicked off the committee spearheading the mortgage settlement, who has said he'll seek to press on with fraud investigations of his own regardless of how the settlement comes out. And there are those pesky reporters who continue to dig up instances of foreclosure fraud, reporting that suggests that while banks had promised to correct fraudulent practices, in some cases they've continued fabricating crucial foreclosure documents.

Smith, one of the best chroniclers of the mortgage fiasco, sums up the state of affairs this way: "The more rocks you turn over in mortgage land, the more creepy-crawlies emerge."

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Obama: (Still) Killing Terrorists the Bush Way

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 12:10 PM EDT

On an upcoming edition of PBS' Frontline, former CIA lawyer John Rizzo argues that the CIA under President Obama is straight-up Bushian. "With a notable exception of the enhanced interrogation program, the incoming Obama administration changed virtually nothing with respect to existing CIA programs and operations," Rizzo says. (Watch a clip of the Rizzo interview here.) Glenn Greenwald points out that this shouldn't be news to anyone who's been paying attention.

The real news: Frontline also reports that, during the 2008 campaign, Obama promised the CIA that it he had every intention of staying the course set by the Bush administration. That information, if it had come out at the time, might have damaged Obama's end-the-war, stop-the-torture campaign mojo.

The Bush administration's cavalier disregard for the limits of presidential power legitimized certain parts of the playbook for future executives of either party. Who couldn't use a little more rampant, unchecked executive power? Here's Greenwald:

Not only civil libertarians but even right-wing ideologues eager to depict Obama as "Soft on Terror" have been forced repeatedly to acknowledge this continuity and to praise Obama for it.…[Former Bush Assistant Attorney General] Jack Goldsmith in The New Republic in May, 2009, made the insightful point that not only was Obama continuing these core Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies, but was actually strengthening them by, among other things, converting them from right-wing dogma into bipartisan consensus….given how much Democrats once opportunistically pretended to find these policies so deeply offensive and intolerable—the more this realization spreads, the better. 

 

Chart of the Day: The Real Employment Picture

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 12:07 PM EDT

Another day, another lousy jobs report. The Washington Post headlined it like this:

Job creation in U.S. comes to a halt in August

At the risk of being tiresome, this isn't correct. We need to add about 150,000 jobs each month merely to keep up with population growth, which means that real net job growth is negative and has been for over a year. The chart below shows real net job creation over the past three years. We should do something about this. How about a trillion dollars for infrastructure?

Perry and the Press

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 11:34 AM EDT

Last weekend, Rick Perry held a private Q&A with evangelical leaders to assure them that he was Christian enough for their taste. Fine. Political leaders meet with interest groups all the time. But there's also this:

Attendees were struck not only by the clout of those who participated, but by the amount of time Perry spent with the group. The governor and his wife mingled with the Christian leaders Friday evening and for several hours Saturday, fielding questions about their faith and his record.

It would be nice if Perry were willing to spend this much time — hell, even half this much time — giving actual interviews to actual reporters. I mean, he is running for president, after all. If he can afford this much time on an evangelical panderfest, how about sparing a few hours for the press too? What's he afraid of?

One Amusing Tidbit from the CIA Rendition Lawsuit Documents

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 11:02 AM EDT

The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the Guardian reported Thursday on a court fight between two firms involved in the Central Intelligence Agency's extraordinary rendition program. These sorts of billing disputes between CIA contractors happen occasionally, but they don't normally make it far enough to reveal anything—usually, the government steps in and invokes the state secrets privilege and the case gets thrown out of court. But this time, someone messed up, and the case went forward, leading to the creation of hundreds of pages of almost entirely unredacted records that touch on many previously unrevealed aspects of the CIA program. (The international human rights group Reprieve first discovered the documents.)

The two firms involved in the court battle are Richmor Aviation, a New York-based company that operated charter planes, and Sportsflight Air, which served as a middleman between charter firms like Richmor and companies that needed planes—in this case, the government contracting giant DynCorp.

The plane that Richmor provided to SportsFlight, with the tail number N85VM, was just one of many used in the extraordinary rendition program. But N85VM, which was owned by Boston Red Sox co-owner Phillip Morse, was particularly notorious not only for being owned by Morse but also for being used in the case of Abu Omar, an Italian imam whose bungled 2005 rendition Peter Bergen covered for Mother Jones. (Afterward, the Italian judiciary sought to prosecute the CIA agents involved in the rendition. I interviewed Steve Hendricks, who wrote a book on the affair, last year.) The Post and the AP stories both note that the Richmor-Sportsflight records show N85VM traveling all over the world, with stops not just in Guantanamo Bay, but also in foreign countries famous for hosting secret CIA prisons or torturing prisoners on America's behalf.

The Associated Press uncovered one particularly interesting tidbit in the court records. When Richmor flew to foreign countries under the Sportsflight-Dyncorp contract, its pilots and crew were provided with letters from a State Department official, Terry A. Hogan, that said the flights entailed "global support for U.S. embassies worldwide." There's just one problem: Hogan doesn't appear to be a real person:

The AP could not locate Hogan. No official with that name is currently listed in State's department-wide directory. A comprehensive 2004 State Department telephone directory contains no reference to Hogan, or variations of that name — despite records of four separate transit letters signed by Terry A. Hogan in January, March and April 2004. Several of the signatures on the diplomatic letters under Hogan's name were noticeably different.

Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2001 to 2005 during the Bush administration, said he was not familiar with the Hogan letters and had not been aware of any direct State Department involvement in the CIA's rendition program. Wilkerson said the multiple signatures would have raised questions about the documents' authenticity.

This makes a lot of sense. The CIA is never especially eager to let other government agencies—especially the State Department—in on its most secret activities. So as ProPublica's Eric Umansky (a Mother Jones alum) notes, it's possible these documents were forged. (State declined to comment to ProPublica or the AP on the matter.)

There's some (darkly) funny stuff in the court documents, which are mostly incredibly banal. (I obtained copies of them yesterday.) When Richmor's president, Mahlon Richards, tells the judge, Paul Czaka, that Morse owned the plane used for the rendition flights, Czaka (presumably a Yankees fan) says, "I guess that concludes the case as far as you're concerned. We can go home now—or I should say, get the heck out of my courtroom."

But my favorite bit of the trial comes when William Ryan, one of the attorneys for Richmor, is questioning Richards, the firm's president. Throughout the case, all parties were fairly careful about describing exactly what Richmor was doing for SportsFlight (and for DynCorp, and ultimately for the government), referring to the passengers as "government personnel and their invitees." This bit of the trial centers around whether Richmor's ultimate client, the government, was happy with Richmor's performance. Some confusion ensues:

No, I imagine the government's "invitees" would not appreciate the service that Richmor was providing.

ARRA and Unemployment

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 11:01 AM EDT

Should we spend a trillion dollars on new infrastructure, as I suggested this morning? Reasonable people can differ. But this comment via Twitter is sadly all too common:

Didn't we do this less than 2 years ago? Jobless went from 7.5% to 9.8%. Do it again, Jobless to 11%. Insane!!!

I know this is just a conservative shoutfest talking point these days, but on the off chance that anyone still cares about the actual evidence, a chart of unemployment is below. In February of 2009, when the stimulus bill was passed, the unemployment rate stood at 8.2%. It peaked eight months later at 10.1% and then started to decline. If you want to, you can argue that ARRA had no effect on unemployment over the long term, but there's really no credible way to argue that ARRA was implemented so fast, and then had such an immediate effect, that it had any serious impact on unemployment up through the fall of 2009. CBO estimates that it lowered unemployment by 0.3% in the third quarter of 2009, and that's about the biggest impact, positive or negative, you can credibly suggest at that point. "Approximately zero" is probably the best estimate so soon after the law was passed.

The White House prediction that ARRA would lower the unemployment rate to 8% was one of the great messaging fiascos of all time. I hardly blame Republicans for throwing this back in the president's face. Nonetheless, private forecasts suggest almost unanimously that ARRA did lower the unemployment rate, and in any case, it certainly had nothing to do with the unemployment rate rising in the immediate few months following its passage. Those are just the facts.

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Mitt Romney's Latest Endorser Called Catholic Bishop "Pedophile Pimp"

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 9:55 AM EDT
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's latest endorsement comes from New Hampshire State Rep. DJ Bettencourt, the number two Republican in the state's House of Representatives. "I think Gov. Romney's experience in Massachusetts best suits him to take on the challenges of the country," Bettencourt told Politico.

Bettencourt would be just another relatively obscure state legislator—especially in New Hampshire, where the state House includes a whopping 400 members—except for a particularly inflammatory remark he made in April. On his Facebook page, Bettencourt called Bishop John McCormack a "pedophile pimp" after the bishop spoke out against the state House leadership's proposed budget plan at a statehouse rally. That budget called for deep, painful cuts to health-care spending, services for the disabled, and education funding. Here's what Bettencourt wrote on his Facebook page:

"Would the Bishop like to discuss his history of protecting the 'vulnerable'? This man is a pedophile pimp who should have been led away from the state House in handcuffs with a rain coat over his head in disgrace. He has absolutely no moral credibility to lecture anyone."

Bettencourt's criticism referred to a 2002 settlement with New Hampshire prosecutors in which the diocese that included McCormack admitted to shielding abusive priests. It agreed to audits of its handling of complaints that minors had been sexually abused. Bettencourt later said he'd been "undiplomatic" in his attack on McCormack.

In New Hampshire's rough-and-tumble legislature, of course, Bettencourt was not alone in unleashing nasty rhetoric on budget protesters. The speaker of the state House, William O'Brien, called those protesting the GOP-backed budget "thugs"; the House finance committee chairman, Ken Weyler, told protesters to "shut up"; and a freshman state legislator, Martin Harty, said he supported eugenics and also a world without "defective people." (Harty later said his comments were a joke.)

Catholics United, a non-partisan advocacy group, has called on Romney to reject Bettencourt's endorsement based on his attack on Bishop McCormack. "[Bettencourt] attacked the character of a religious leader for choosing to stand with the poor and working class," James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, said in a statement. "By accepting this endorsement, Mitt Romney raises concerns amongst Catholic voters that he approves of Bettencourt's corrosive and disrespectful campaign tactics."

Book Review: Believing Is Seeing

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography

By Errol Morris

THE PENGUIN PRESS

We expect photography to reflect reality, to encapsulate undeniable facts. In this book, filmmaker Errol Morris dismantles that notion, showing that even the least ambiguous photos present a cropped version of truth. He interrogates famous images from the Civil War, the Depression, and Iraq with characteristic curiosity. Trying to deconstruct the notorious photo of an Abu Ghraib guard grinning over a corpse (an image also featured in his film, Standard Operating Procedure), Morris gets a crash course from an authority on facial expressions. While obsessing over a 150-year-old Crimean War photo that may have been staged, he consults shadow experts and forensic imagery specialists and even sets out to find the exact spot where it was taken. "Photographs reveal and they conceal," Morris writes. In short, those proverbial 1,000 words may require a bit of fact-checking.

Five Deadliest States in the USA

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 6:19 AM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Taking a risk by going on an adventure and exploring a new environment is an essential part of understanding the natural world we live in. But sometimes accidents occur. Usually completely unaware, humans put themselves at risk of being attacked or even worse—being eaten.

But how do you ascertain what is a potential threat and what is not?

This fantastic rough guide to the nature you do not want to come face-to-face with (without an experienced leader of course) aims to provide you with some inside knowledge.

Know your enemy

The United States's huge size and vast biodiversity, make it one of a few countries that are megadiverse.

Harboring more than 91,000 insect, 500 reptile and amphibian, 750 bird, and 400 mammal species, it is no surprise that the third largest country on the planet is the site of some less than pleasant human-animal encounters.

Let's take a look at some of the toughest specimens the United States's animal kingdom has to offer.

1. Texas: Rattlesnake

By both population and landmass, Texas is the second largest state in the US. It is because of this immense size of 261,797 square miles and wide-ranging terrain that this particular territory has grown an infamous reputation as the toughest, wildest, and most dangerous of all 50 states—whether that's because of cowboys or rattlesnakes remains uncertain.

With a range of different climate types, from the sub-tropical swamps of the east to the desert-like conditions of the west. It is easy to understand how Texas has become such a challenge when it comes to regional classification, and why its population of potentially dangerous creatures it so vast.

One of the most feared creatures of Texas is the rattlesnake. In particular the Western Diamondback whose bark is definitely as bad as its bite. The snake's advanced venom delivery system allows it to control the amount of venom discharged. Once the prey has been killed venom also plays a role in its digestion.

This western outlaw is definitely one to run rather than just hide from.

2. Florida: Alligator

Boasting the longest coastline in the continental United States, stretching approximately 2,276 miles, Florida is home to one of the most famous national parks in the world—the Everglades. Florida's omnipresence of water has given the state its lifeblood as well as its greatest foe.

In the past decade southern Florida in particular has sadly become a feral orphanage for exotic pets such as the African rock and Burmese pythons. It is a native reptile, with over a million populace, that intimidates its human counterparts the most.

Notorious for its 75-toothed bone-breaking bites, this incredible creature has remained virtually unchanged in appearance for over 200 million years.

Attacks on humans are rare, perhaps because alligators do not associate humans with food. Due to increased contact with people, however, they are becoming habituated and this may lead to increased conflict. With increased human encroachment on the natural environment, the southeastern United States will have to keep on their toes.

3. Arizona: Black Widow

Known for its desert climate, with lush pine forests and mountain ranges, Arizona's abundance of venomous creatures places it high on the list of the US' deadliest states.

However few of the species who call this state home have venom strong enough to be life threatening to humans. One exception is the Black Widow spider—so called because the female has a reputation for eating the male after mating—in fact this is rare in nature.

Like the alligators of Florida, they are rarely aggressive unless provoked or mishandled. The venom is classed as neuro-toxic because it affects the nervous system and can cause respiratory distress and chest pains. Bites are particularly dangerous in children due to their small size and to pregnant women who can be induced to go into premature labor.

4. Alaska: Bear or moose?

As the largest state in the US with a land area over twice the size of Texas, Alaska has more than three million lakes and some 28,000 square miles of glacial ice cover. The perfect habitat for an animal that by tradition, takes first place as most feared—the bear.

It's not just the top predators humans should fear, but in some cases their prey, too. The moose, a favored prey of the bear, poses a big threat to humans. With males weighing in at around 1,600 pounds, these heavyweights (although not aggressive unless provoked or startled), injure more people every year in Alaska than bears do. Due to their vast population, moose-human interactions are frequent. Increased urbanized areas with high-speed carriageways mean that vehicle-moose collisions are the now the most frequent cause of moose-related injury. They most commonly bluff charge as opposed to actually charging. But in general, it's better not to wait around to check if it was a mock one or not—retreat behind something solid.

5. California: Mountain Lion

This has always been an incredibly prosperous region for agriculture, and since the famous gold rush of the 1800's, it's been known as the Golden State, so called for its financial prosperity. California is by far the most populous state in the US with over 12 percent of the population living there. But the idyllic region is not without its problems.

Located within the Pacific Ring of Fire, California is subjected to a phenomenal amount of earthquakes, with the south of the state averaging 10,000 per year. This causes some freak meteorological effects, including tsunamis. Still, California contains more forestland than any other continental state and can lay claim to having some of the tallest, largest and oldest trees in the world—making it a perfect habitat for the mountain lion, one of the oldest predators in the country.

Once used to roaming almost the whole of the United States, today these remarkably adaptable cats are still found across most of California. Also known as cougar, panther, or puma, these large solitary predators still have the biggest range of any large terrestrial mammal in the western hemisphere.

Although incredibly shy and preferably remaining out of sight, recent reports have shown an increase in the number of human encounters with mountain lions. This is due to an increase in the large-cat population and because more and more humans are encroaching on their territory.

If you do come face-to-face with a cougar, give it room to get away. It would rather avoid you than confront you—and surely the feeling is mutual.

Rick Perry's 235th Execution Won't Come Yet

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has presided over more executions than any governor in modern American history.

Update: On Monday afternoon, despite a late push for a retrial from a prosecutor who helped convicted him, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Duane Buck's petition for clemency. Buck will be executed as scheduled on Thursday, unless Perry or the district attorney intervene to grant a 30-day stay of execution. This post was originally published on September 2 and updated on September 13 with new information.

Update II (September 15): On Thursday evening the US Supreme Court issued a temporary stay of execution, giving it time to review the case, Reuters reported.

A Texas inmate sentenced to death—in a racially charged case that now-Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said was inappropriately decided—has petitioned Gov. Rick Perry and his state parole board for clemency, giving the GOP presidential candidate two days to decide whether to commute the sentence or grant a temporary stay of execution. Last week, one of the Harris County prosecutors who helped secure Buck's conviction wrote a letter to Perry urging him to grant a retrial. In 10 years as governor, Perry has presided over 234 executions, more than any other governor in modern history; only once has he granted clemency in a case where the Supreme Court hasn't already mandated it. Now, just as he steps onto the national stage, Perry will have to make what looks like a tough call—with GOP primary voters watching.

The inmate, Duane Edward Buck, is set to be executed by lethal injection on September 15 for murdering two people at the home of his ex-girlfriend in 1995. The issue at hand isn't Buck's innocence, but the means by which his death sentence was obtained. Prosecutors firmly established Buck's guilt, but to secure a capital punishment conviction in Texas they needed to prove "future dangerousness"—that is, provide compelling evidence that Buck posed a serious threat to society if he were ever to walk free. They did so in part with the testimony of a psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck's race (he's African American) made him more likely to commit crimes in the future. (Quijano answered in the affirmative to the question of whether "the race factor, [being] black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons.")