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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Goldman Gets the Criminal Treatment

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 10:08 AM EDT

If you're Rep. Marcy Kaptur or the 61 other congressmen—or, for that matter, the 140,000 petition signers—then you've got to feel pretty powerful right now. Yesterday, Kaptur hand-delivered a letter to the Justice Department calling for a criminal investigation of Goldman Sachs, the besieged investment firm facing fraud charges for a complicated 2007 deal gone bad. Less than 24 hours later, reports emerged that the federal prosecutors have opened a preliminary criminal inquiry into Goldman's trading activities.

The case was referred to the Southern District of New York prosecutor's office by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which filed a securities fraud suit against Goldman two weeks ago. The SEC's suit alleges that Goldman misled investors by not disclosing that a hedge fund trader who wanted to bet against a product of Goldman's making had influenced what went into the product, called a synthetic collateralized debt obligation (CDO). Essentially, the SEC says that the hedge fund trader, John Paulson, got to rig the CDO so that his bet against it was almost certain to pay out. (It did: Paulson ended up making $1 billion, while the two investors who invested in the CDO, called Abacus, lost roughly the same amount.)

Right now, the criminal investigation of Goldman is in the early stages. It's also worth noting that the burden of proof in a criminal case like this is higher than in a civil suit, like the SEC's, meaning federal prosecutors have their work cut out for them to show blatant wrongdoing by Goldman. Nevertheless, today's reports cap arguably one of the worst weeks in Goldman's history. The firm's top brass were grilled by Senate lawmakers on Tuesday, the company's stock has slumped, and a pair of shareholders filed what's projected to be the first of multiple shareholder suits against Goldman. The worst, it seems, could still be on the horizon.

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Shelby's Finance Bill Betrayal

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 1:32 PM EDT

On the opening day of debate over legislation that would rewrite the rules of the financial markets, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) all but disavowed the bill, claiming it wouldn't fix anything—and would in fact hurt the US economy. Here's why that's shocking: Shelby, the top GOP negotiator on financial reform, has been working on the bill with his counterpart, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), for more than three years. Dodd and Shelby have been engaged in grueling, closed-door negotiations for months.  No Republican has more invested in the bill than Shelby. 

Yet today on the Senate floor, Shelby pretty much eviscerated the measure, while a red-faced and anxious-looking Chris Dodd sat across the aisle from the Alabama senator. "This bill threatens our economy," Shelby said. He added that the bill would leave taxpayers on the hook for future bailouts; the derivatives provisions would impair the economy; a new consumer bureau would stifle consumer lending; and a proposed Office of Financial Research, which would gather financial data used to predict future financial crises, would pry into Americans' lives and violate their civil liberties.

After Shelby finished his opening remarks, Dodd replied tepidly, half-jokingly, "Other than what you just heard from my colleague in Alabama, he likes the bill." It's doubtful whether Dodd actually believes that; anyone who heard Shelby's remarks doesn't. Does this mean all those months of talks between Dodd and Shelby were for naught? Possibly. Are Democrats and Republicans back at square one on financial reform? Sure looks like it.

Goldman's All-Star Lobbying Squad

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 10:54 AM EDT

All-star, that is, if you're rooting against comprehensive financial regulatory reform and don't want Congress to rein in excessive bonuses, risky speculating, and financial chicanery. On the day the Senate is slated to begin debating its Wall Street overhaul, the Washington Post sheds some light on the lobbying crew Goldman Sachs has assembled to fight reform and make sure whatever changes the Senate wants don't damage the firm's bottom line. Their lobbying team looks like a who's-who of financially-connected politicos with ample connections throughout Washington. Consider it the Yankees—or, if you're a soccer fan like me, the Real Madrid—of financial lobbying, the best money can buy.

Leading Goldman's lobbying shop is Michael Paese, a former aide to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the powerful chairman of the House financial services committee. Frank's committee largely crafted the House's version of financial reform legislation, and will play a huge role in reconciling the House and Senate's bills likely later this spring. Frank, the Post reported, banned Paese from lobbying his committee for two years, just as the chairman more recently banned a former aide, Peter Roberson, who left the committee to lobby for the derivatives industry.

Filling out Goldman's lobbying roster are more familiar names like Dick Gephardt, the populist former Democratic majority leader turned Big Finance shill. Harold Ford Jr., the telegenic former Tennessee congressman, who recently mulled a Senate run in New York and did time with Merrill Lynch, is also lobbying for Goldman now. A few more well-connected Goldman lobbyists:

  • Faryar Shirzad, a former economic aide to George W. Bush
  • Joe Wall, a former legislative affairs aide to Dick Cheney
  • Richard Roberts, who's served as a powerful Securities and Exchange Commission commissioner and aide to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a top GOPer on financial reform
  • Eric Edwards, formerly a staff director on a House financial services committee's subcommittee

It's a star-studded lineup, to be sure. That said, with public ire against Goldman rising, its reputation sinking, and even President Obama shunning the firm, even the Yankees of lobbying will have their work cut out for them.

Let the Finance Reform Battle Begin

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 7:46 AM EDT

After three days of GOP obstruction and deadlock, Senate Democrats finally wore down their colleagues across the aisle and will today begin full debate on overhauling Wall Street on the Senate floor. Instead of haggling behind closed doors, senators will now have to fight to improve or whittle down the bill out in the open. In the coming days, you’ll see members of both parties making lots of statements and offering amendments to the bill, largely crafted by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), that bolster and weaken the array of proposed rules and regulations that rewrite how our financial services industry does business.

Right now, there look to be three main sticking points between the parties. One is the proposed consumer protection agency, which would oversee areas like mortgage lenders, auto dealers, and credit card practices. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a leading figure on financial reform, wants to pare back the reach and power of the agency; he says it would create unnecessary bureaucracy and would pry into the lives of Americans. Shelby’s counterpart, Sen. Dodd, said yesterday that he disagrees with Shelby’s position. "I cannot agree to his desire to weaken consumer protections given the enormous abuses we have seen," Dodd said. There's sure to be an intense fight waged on the Senate floor to determine the fate of the consumer agency.

What to do with systemically risky, or "too-big-to-fail," banks is another prickly issue. In an interview with CNBC yesterday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), another leading Republican on financial reform, said the two parties had yet to reconcile their differences on ending the threat of too-big-to-fail banks and preventing future taxpayer bailouts. That said, Corker hinted that GOPers and Democrats weren’t that far apart on the issue: "We can fix 'Too Big To Fail' piece. We really can, in about five minutes. Everybody knows how to fix it." If Corker’s remarks are any indication, reaching a compromise on too-big-to-fail—what Corker seems to believe is low-hanging fruit for the Senate—could be top of the to-do list.

The third issue where major differences remain is regulating derivatives, the exotic, opaque instruments used both by farmers and manufacturers to hedge their risk and by Wall Street to bet on swings in the markets. The derivatives language included in the bill now is especially tough—most of it comes from the Senate agriculture committee’s derivatives bill, which would require derivatives to be traded on exchanges (like the New York Stock Exchange) and put through a clearinghouse so that the risk of losses is absorbed by many parties instead of a few (think AIG). The agriculture committee’s bill would also force derivatives trading desks to be spun off from their larger banking operations, a provision that’s drawn the ire of Wall Street.

Yesterday, Shelby said, "on the derivatives, we haven't worked that out." And the lone Democrat to vote against cloture three times with Republicans, centrist Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), opposes the current derivatives legislation, too. A provision in the derivatives section would force existing derivatives contracts to post margin—either cash or securities as collateral—on those deals. Warren Buffett, the head of Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway, had sought to kill that margin requirement for existing derivatives, saying the government couldn't rewrite existing contracts, and his company put pressure on Nelson to do so. But margin requirement remains in the bill, and it's unlikely Nelson will agree to the bill's derivatives rules as they are now until there’s resolution on the Buffett provision.

Of course, there are many other fights to come on the 1,300-page bill. (You can read about more of those here.) Only now, you can watch those fights on CSPAN, or the highlights on the big TV networks, just as many people tuned in for the war over health care reform. The debate starts today around noon.

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