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 Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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The Wall St. Lobby's Flip-flop

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 7:01 AM PDT

If you need any more reason to distrust Wall Street's lobbying armada, which has spent millions to undercut a new financial reform bill, then look no further than an op-ed from Elizabeth Warren, the staunch consumer advocate and bailout watchdog, published today. In it, Warren highlights the utter hypocrisy of the banking lobby's aim to neuter, if not outright kill, a new, independent consumer financial protection agency.

Among the banking lobby's top talking points for fighting this consumer agency is that it would separate what's called "safety and soundness" regulation (your run-of-the-mill bank oversight, basically) and consumer protection measures, like cracking down on predatory lenders, usurious interest rates, and unfair credit card penalties. For instance, Scott Talbott, a top lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, a powerful finance trade organization, told the New York Times that his organization "believe[s] that consumer protection and bank supervision should be housed under the same roof."

But as Warren points out, the position of Big Finance's biggest advocacy group, the American Bankers Association, was the exact opposite just a few years ago. In 2006, the FDIC, Federal Reserve, and other government regulators were considering allowing bank regulators to keep an eye on subprime mortgages, those tricky—and toxic—products that would help topple the economy. The ABA, when it caught wind of this potential move, sent a letter to the FDIC arguing against merging bank oversight and consumer protection, saying this "marriage of inconvenience between supervision and consumer protection appears to blur long-established jurisdictional lines." The association recommended that "the safety and soundness provisions relating to underwriting and portfolio management be separated from the consumer protection provisions." (The ABA, in a sign of true prescience, also said subprime mortgages weren't "inherently riskier" than plain vanilla mortgages and that letting bank regulators oversee subprime loans "overstates the risk" of them.)

This, Warren concludes, shows that Wall Street's "lobbyists’ consistent theme is unmistakable: they oppose meaningful rules in the consumer credit market." She goes to write:

The ABA’s premise that the country can’t have both meaningful consumer protection and safety and soundness is wrong. In fact, its defense against an independent consumer agency boils down to this: if banks can’t trick and trap people with fine print and legalese, they won’t be able to turn a profit.

When other industries have argued that tricking their customers is an essential part of their profit model, they haven’t gotten far. For example, it might be profitable in the short run to substitute baking soda for antibiotics, but basic safety regulations prevent such moves—and the pharmaceutical industry still manages to do just fine. In fact, the industry flourishes, bringing better, cheaper products to customers.

Similarly, the consumer agency now before the Senate is designed to cut out tricks and traps pricing, fine print that no one can read, and sharp practices that strip billions of dollars from consumers...

In the weeks ahead, the Senate does not need to decide between safety and soundness and consumer protection.

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Will DADT Tweaks Kill Morale?

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 1:00 PM PDT

Will Defense Secretary Robert Gates' latest overhaul of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the US' policy on gays in the military, kill soldiers' morale? A day after Gates announced the new changes to DADT, the right is crying foul, saying the new regulations will "more confusion and fear among military members" and undercut morale in the armed services. Gates announced yesterday new guidelines that essentially make it more far more difficult to kick out of the military a soldier, sailor, marine, or airman who doesn't publicly admit they're gay. Gates' latest announcement is a "major step toward the end of the law," said a spokesman for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

Today, multiple conservative and Christian groups decried Gates' decision, warning of the damage it will inflict on servicemembers and claiming it'll weaken the military. "Members of the military already fear punishment for agreeing with the federal law that homosexuals in the military 'would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion,'" said Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for American, a conservative Christian group that blasted Gates' decision. CWA's president, Wendy Wright, also chimed in, this time playing the national security card. "Our military should have one objective: to keep America safe," she said. "The job of the military—and the ability to do that job—is too important to be subject to the demands of a special interest group."

Of course, groups in favor of repealing DADT deny these assertions altogether, saying the safety of American troops will only be improved by ridding the armed services of the Clinton-era policy. Comments like those made by CWA and its ilk, then, are most likely so much sound and fury before DADT is thrown out into the dustbin of history.

Slouching Towards Foreclosure Help

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 10:10 AM PDT

Talk about timing. A day after Congress excoriated the Obama administration's multibillion-dollar foreclosure rescue, and after many months' worth of criticism and hand-wringing, the administration rolled out today a revamped plan to help beleaguered homeowners and try to slow the pace of foreclosures, after a record-breaking 2.8 million were filed last year.

It's a multi-pronged plan, and here are the details:

If you're out of work...then this plan could help you. Specifically, servicers are required to lower payments for unemployed borrowers to 31 percent or less of your income, which is likely comprised of unemployment payments. So your payments would drop to about a third of your monthly unemployment cash. That period of lower payments can last from three to six months, during which time the hope is that the unemployed can find work. If you do, then you're also eligible for a modification under Obama's flagship modification program, the Home Affordable Modification Program. If you don't find work, then you could, under the administration's plans, try to short-sell or try a deed-in-lieu with your bank, both as a means to avoid foreclosure. This part of the program is slated to be up and running within a few months.

DOJ Balks on Cartel Crime Rise

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 2:46 PM PDT

Drug trafficking Mexican cartels continue to spread like weeds throughout the US, funneling drugs through American cities and pocketing massive profits. In the National Drug Intelligence Center's annual "Threat Assessment" report for 2008, the agency found that Mexican drug traffickers had distribution networks in at least 230 American cities, an expansive operation generating billions of dollars a year.

Today, the NDIC, which is part of the Justice Department, released its 2010 "Drug Threat" report. Again, the NDIC highlighted the rise of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in the US: "Mexican DTOs are more deeply entrenched in drug trafficking activities in the United States than any other DTOs." What the 2010 report doesn't include, however, is the latest tally of American cities now fostering Mexican drugrunners and dealers. The 2010 report says only that they're "active in more cities throughout the country than any other DTOs."

So why the omission? Is the DOJ reluctant to include the figure because the number is so large, the power of Mexican cartels so far reaching? An official with the National Drug Intelligence Center said the report didn't include a hard figure because the agency was "in the throes of reanalyzing" its data, and wouldn't have a new figure for another month or so. The official did add that the NDIC predicts that 230 figure has increased from 2008. You can read into the DOJ's lack of new data however you'd like, but be prepared for some startling statistics when the department does release its new tally of cities caught in the Mexican cartels' web.

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