Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Men's Journal, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndyKroll.

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Workers: Pay Up, Jeff Greene

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 5:12 AM EDT

Jeff Greene, the self-made billionaire running for US Senate as a Democrat in Florida, likes to say that "Creating jobs is priority number one." His slogan is "Jobs. Results. Florida." In a new ad, "Never Let You Down," Greene tells Floridians, "I've created thousands of jobs, I understand the economy, and I know what it will take to get things moving again."

Imagine, then, the surprise of some part-time workers for Greene's campaign who claim to have been stiffed by the candidate. In the run-up to tomorrow's primary vote, Greene's campaign said it'd pay $50 each day for workers to canvass neighborhoods, call prospective voters, and otherwise promote the wealthy, largely self-funded Greene. Now, some of those workers claim they're not getting paid for their work. Here's the Miami Herald's Beth Reinhard:

"He's a crook," said 22-year-old Sabrina Height, picking her teeth with a toothpick after enjoying the spread of free food [at a Miami Gardens restaurant on Sunday]. She said she was owed $200. "He's giving us the runaround," she said. "To tell you the truth, I don't even know why I voted for him."

James Alvin, 43, who said he was owed $250, said he would probably vote for Greene's rival, Kendrick Meek "because of what his mom done." His mother, Carrie Meek, served in Congress from 1992 to 2002, when Kendrick was elected.

Greene spokesman Luis Vizcaino insisted that everyone who worked on the campaign would be paid. "They're here for a back-to-school event,'' he said of the people leaving the restaurant with armfuls of spiral notebooks, folders and No. 2 pencils.

Greene faces Rep. Kendrick Meek in the Democratic primary for US Senate, for which voting day is tomorrow. (Early voting has already begun.) While Greene has challenged Meek, and even surged past Meek in the polls, his controversial past has caught up with him in recent weeks and dogged his campaign. According to a new poll from Public Policy Polling, Meek leads Greene by a whopping 51 percent to 27 percent. As PPP pollster Tom Jensen put it, "Jeff Greene made a bad first impression on Florida Democrats and the more they got to know him the less they liked him."

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Rick Scott, The Bail-Out Man

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 10:23 AM EDT

Rick Scott, the wealthy Republican running for the Florida governor's seat, has a bailout problem. No, he doesn't support using trillions in taxpayer money to save failing banks. But he does have a habit of bailing out on big-time campaign events, a nasty habit that's coincided with a drop in the polls just a few days before Tuesday's primary election.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that Scott, a former big-time hospital executive, bailed out of an event hosted by the Boca Raton Republican Club where he would've appeared alongside his primary opponent, Florida attorney general Bill McCollum. A record crowd had turned out, organizers said, to see the two candidates side-by-side. As it turns out, that's an arrangement that Scott has seemingly avoided when he feels like it.

Earlier this month, Scott dodged a forum with McCollum hosted by the Christian Family Coalition, even though he willingly delivered a speech of his own at the same CFC setting earlier in the day. And Scott also dodged a televised debate hosted by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association pitting him against McCollum. 

Here's more from the Sun-Sentinel on Scott's latest bailout:

Club president Margi Helschien said Scott's staff had repeatedly confirmed his appearance, and did a walk-through of the venue earlier this week at the Boca Raton Marriott.

Helschein said Scott's staff confirmed at 1 p.m. Thursday that he would be at the event. At 4 p.m., she got a call from the Scott campaign saying he was in the Panhandle and wouldn't show up.

The campaign offered up the candidate's mother, Esther Scott. Helschein accepted, figuring she could provide people with some insight into her son.

"What better person to know a candidate than their mother," she said.

Scott's aversion to tough questioning apparently extends to reporters as well. Earlier this summer, Scott's staff "barred a Miami television reporter from his campaign bus for the offense of asking Esther Scott a few questions about her son," the Sun-Sentinel reported.

The latest Quinnipiac poll for Florida's GOP gubernatorial race shows McCollum out in front, 44 percent to 35 percent. The Broward New Times has five pretty hilarious reasons of their own for why the tall, bald-headed Scott skipped the Boca Raton event. (Hint: Number three is "Jet lag from trips to the planet Krypton.")

Taxpayer Cash for Aide's DWI Trip?

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 9:19 AM EDT

A month and a half ago, it emerged that an aide to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.)—an aide handling women's issues, no less—had pled guilty in 2008 to threatening to kill his girlfriend and attacking her. With a knife. ABC News broke the story about Brent Furer, who subsequently resigned from his position, and who, in addition to the attack charges, had been arrested three times for driving under the influence and once for cocaine possession.

Now, a follow-up investigation into the aide's record raises a new issue: Did taxpayer money fund one of Furer's trips to Louisiana for a DWI-related court hearing? The Advocate of Louisiana found that expense reports in Vitter's office show that two trips Furer made to Louisiana in 2007 and 2008 coincide with dates the aide showed up in court for a December 2004 DWI arrest. (A Vitter spokesman told The Advocate that Vitter "did not know about any Baton Rouge DWI incident until it was reported in the press just this past June...It is standard for our Washington legislative staff to visit Louisiana periodically for meetings.")

More on Furer from The Advocate:

The US Senate’s expense records show Vitter’s office account was billed $634.20 for transportation for Furer leaving Washington, DC, on Oct. 12, 2007 to New Orleans and returning on Oct. 18, 2007.

Furer appeared in court on Oct. 17, 2007, according to Baton Rouge City Court records, then was referred to the probation division.

The US Senate records also show that Vitter’s office expense account was tapped for $746 for Furer’s transportation from Washington, D.C., to Baton Rouge and New Orleans leaving Aug. 5, 2008, and returning Aug. 14, 2008.

Furer signed a probation agreement in Baton Rouge on Aug 7, 2008, attesting that he would fulfill the conditions of the sentence.

A bench warrant was issued on Furer in connection with the last DWI for failure to appear in court on June 1, 2009, according to city court records. The hearing was to consider his non-compliance with the terms of his sentence.

With Vitter up for re-election this year, you can't help but wonder whether, or how much, the Furer furor will hurt his campaign. Then again, "Diaper Dave" Vitter has overcome worse.

Lewie Ranieri to the Rescue!

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 10:24 AM EDT

You may remember him from Michael Lewis' 1980s Wall Street classic, Liar's Poker: Lewie Ranieri, the godfather of the mortgage-backed security, who spent his days raking in billions while chomping cheeseburgers for the once-mighty Solomon Brothers. (I'm sure Ranieri's sick of people recounting his '80s exploits by now.) As the Wall Street Journal reports today, Ranieri has made, in some ways, quite the reversal: He now leads an outfit called Selene Residential Mortgage Opportunity Fund, which buys up mortgage loans at a massive discount and works with the borrower to keep them in their home via lowered interest rates or reduced principal. Ranieri's fund is essentially doing (albeit on a smaller scale) what the Obama administration's Home Affordable Modification Program was supposed to do: modifying mortgages and stopping foreclosures.

Here's more from the Journal's James Hagerty:

But Mr. Ranieri isn't your typical miracle worker. As a fund manager who was once vice chairman of the bond-trading firm Salomon Brothers, he's a member of the Wall Street crowd that is often pilloried for helping inflate the housing bubble, though he sat out the excesses of recent years. The 1989 book "Liar's Poker" made him famous for billion-dollar trades in mortgage bonds and junk-food "feeding frenzies" with his trading-desk buddies.

As the nation struggles with the worst foreclosure crisis since the 1930s, Mr. Ranieri's investment fund and others like it are emerging as the best hope for the roughly seven million U.S. households behind on their mortgage payments. Nimble, flush and willing to strike deals with borrowers, these funds have an edge over banks and other lenders that can be mired in bureaucracy and hampered by government rules about which loans can be renegotiated and how.

Selene's approach to modifying loans is a lot more sustainable than the administration's. Whereas Obama's HAMP has resulted in little reduction of the principal amount owed—the best way to help struggling homeowners (which the administration well knew)—nearly 90 percent of all Selene modifications involve principal reductions, the Journal found. That means homeowners are far less likely to re-default on their modified mortgage; in HAMP, the re-default rate is anywhere from a staggering 60 percent to 75 percent, according to analysts.

What's more, Lewie Ranieri and his team aren't doing this out of charity, either; they see loan modifications as a profitable venture:

If a delinquent loan can be turned into a "performing" loan, with the borrower making regular payments, the value of that loan rises, and Selene can turn around and either refinance it or sell it at a profit. Mr. Ranieri declines to discuss the fund's performance. But one of the shareholders, the Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico, reported that its holdings in the fund had a market value of $19.8 million as of June 30, up from $18 million in late 2008. That excludes distributions of profits to shareholders in the funds.

The only catch with Ranieri's operation is that it's at a far smaller scale than HAMP. The fund told the Journal that it had modified "thousands" of loans so far, a small fraction of the total delinquencies in the US. (According to most recent data, 6.67 percent of all borrowers are 60 or more days behind on their mortgage.)

Still, given the success Ranieri's had so far, I hope the folks over at the Treasury Department, and at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are taking notes.

Should Fannie and Freddie Be Killed or Kept Alive?

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

On Tuesday, the Treasury Department played host to a who's-who of the housing industry: bank executives, bureaucrats, think tankers, academics, and  investors, who gathered in the ornate Cash Room to offer their two cents on how to fix the broken housing finance system, and in particular, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two housing corporations, which backstop the vast majority of America's mortgages, have had their balance sheets and reputations badly wounded in the past couple of years. Since the federal government essentially nationalized them in September 2008, taxpayers have propped up Fannie and Freddie to the tune of $148 billion. With $5 trillion in debt on their books, and no plan in place for their future, the troubled twins have become a political lightning rod and punching bags for the GOP.

So what do the brightest minds in housing envision see in store for Fannie and Freddie? Depends on who's got the mic. The recommendations offered at yesterday's conference ranged from fully nationalizing housing finance to getting government out of the business of guaranteeing loans. The Obama administration was somewhere in the middle, offering new but vague ideas on tackling its Fannie/Freddie problem.

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