Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

Today is Veterans Day.

Politicians are making speeches honoring the sacrifices made by servicemen and servicewomen. But being ripped off by predatory lenders — many of whom prey specifically on residents of military bases — should NOT be among our veterans’ sacrifices.

The Department of Defense has the authority to rein in the unpatriotic predators who gouge service members. Please join Public Citizen in urging the DoD to support the troops by cracking down on corporate predators.

Service members are targeted by “payday” lenders because military rules require them to maintain good finances, but the realities of service — such as sudden relocations to different parts of the country — often result in unanticipated expenses.

Meanwhile, forced arbitration clauses buried in the fine print of the terms for these high-interest (as in 500 percent) loans mean that our troops are denied their right to a day in court.

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Welcome to the 2014 Meh-terms, America.

Sure, the attack ads are blanketing the airwaves, and sure, some guys from Kansas are spending millions for your vote, but all the mainstream media wants to talk about is how much no one actually cares about the midterms. America has had enough red meat rhetoric to send a grizzly bear into cardiac arrest, and that appears to be what has happened.

Steeped in nearly $4 billion dollars’ worth of campaign spending – most of it on vapid, sleazy campaign ads – it’s really no wonder that Americans are tuning out the midterms in droves.

To alleviate your despair, here’s an (almost) exhaustive list, in no particular order, of solutions to America’s big dumb, big-money elections.

1. Pass a Constitutional Amendment

The Supreme Court’s delusional ruling in Citizens United helped to demolish the last vestiges of sanity in the system that politicians use to finance their campaigns. For elections to be less dumb we have to make sure that everybody has a say in who gets elected, not just the people with $150 million dollars to blow on elections. The 28th Amendment would simply state that Congress has the authority to bar corporate spending in elections and place reasonable limits on campaign contributions and spending for the sake of leveling the playing field for those of us who aren’t pulling down nine figures this year.

2. The DISCLOSE Act

Organizations that do not disclose their donors, known as dark money groups, can spend millions to influence elections without disclosing to voters who is actually funding the ads. That sort of makes accountability hard to come by. The DISCLOSE Act would simply require organizations that spend $10,000 or more on election-related ads to disclose their donors.

3. Fair Elections Now Act / Democracy Is For People Act / Empowering Citizens Act

These bills would provide matching public funds to candidates who are able to collect large numbers of small donations. The first two would effect House and Senate Races, and the last one would be for both congressional and presidential races. Public financing would empower small donor by encouraging candidates to chat it up with regular people instead of spending four hours a day on the phone chasing millionaires (which can really skew your perspective on the important things in life).

4. Real Time Transparency Act

Nothing fancy here unless you count retiring filing cabinets and putting data on computers as fancy. The Real Time Transparency act would require campaigns, parties, and committees to disclose contributions on-line within 48 hours of receiving them. And before you tell me that this should already be a thing, please ruminate on the fact that in the year 2014 the Senate still files its contribution reports on paper.

5. Shareholder Protection Act

Don’t skip this one just because you’re not a well-heeled investment guru. The Shareholder Protection Act would require companies that spend money in elections to disclose that spending to their shareholders, which also includes anyone with a retirement account. And even if you don’t have a retirement account, no one likes to miss out on a good boycott.

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Nobody openly supports unequal justice.

When Attorney General Eric Holder confided to Congress that some banks were too “large” to prosecute because it might cause systemic tremors, he was appropriately pilloried for declaring a “too big to jail” policy.

A recent disquieting episode sheds light on some of the interactions between government regulators and the banks they oversee. This episode refines our understanding of regulatory capture (at least at one bank). The “Carmen Segarra” incident shows us more about how the regulators think, how they approach errant bankers, and how far the regulators may be from adopting the obvious solution of breaking up these too-big-to-jail banks.

Spoiler alert: they are far.

Carmen Segarra spent seven months beginning in October 2011 as a senior bank examiner at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. The New York Fed is one of the front-line supervisors of the big Wall Street banks. It counts among of the regulators that the Justice Department might consult before prosecutors decide whether to seek full penalties, or to pull a punch if advised that a criminal conviction of a bank could endanger the economy,

Segarra took this job after positions at Citigroup, Societe General and MBNA, and after schooling herself at Harvard, Columbia and Cornell. The NY Fed assigned her to help oversee Goldman Sachs. While there, she uncovered serious problems. In a chain of events, when she brought these problems to her supervisors, they fired her.

In 2013, Segarra sued the New York Fed and several of her supervisors. She outlined episodes where her bosses blocked her efforts to ask tough questions or promote better policies at Goldman Sachs. For example, Goldman worked for El Paso Corp as an advisor as it bid for Kinder Morgan, Inc. Advisors help buyers secure the lowest price and best conditions. But Goldman also owned some $3 billion worth of Kinder, and a Goldman banker held a sizeable personal stake in Kinder. Sellers want the highest price when they sell. Segarra questioned Goldman’s conflict-of-interest policy. But her bosses demanded that she tone down her memorandum on the issue.

Her allegations from 2013 received some public attention at the time. Regulatory capture — where crooks control the cops — is a festering problem in bank supervision.

This September, Segarra went a step further when she released audio tapesThe very Goldman and New York Fed staff described in her lawsuit can be heard saying what she alleges. The “tone it down” conversation with her boss allows the listener to verify her charge. You are there. As Michael Lewis observed, these tapes could become the “Ray Rice moment” for bank regulators. (Rice is a Baltimore Raven football player guilty of domestic violence. That episode had been known for months, but when the tape was released, the NFL increased its sanctions on the player.)

The Segarra audio tapes emphasize the servility of regulators. In one exchange, Segarra’s boss’ boss — Michael Silva — raises a glaring problem with a Goldman executive with the indirection and timidity of a mail room clerk searching for a delicate way to tell the CEO he’d spilled coffee on his shirt. (Silva now works for GE Capital, another example of the revolving door problem behind regulatory capture.) Pulitzer winner Jake Bernstein of ProPublica shepherded Segarra’s tapes, of which there are 46 hours, into the public domain. As he summarizes, the tapes demonstrate the extraordinary deference of the regulators to the banks. (Of note, it is legal under New York and federal law to make tapes.)

It may be unrealistic to expect Hollywood histrionics from our bank regulators, but the Segarra tapes reveal that some senior bank regulators can’t even utter a clear criticism to a banker.

If Segarra was told to tone down her criticisms, if her bosses won’t confront bankers, if these same regulators leave government to work for mega-banks, we might realistically expect them to tell prosecutors in a timid way that a serious criminal charge is unwise for the financial system.

How can regulatory capture be addressed? Legislating spine may difficult.

One step would be greater transparency. Presumably, officials at the New York Fed are thinking more seriously about their capture problem following Segarra’s lawsuit and the release of the audio tapes. If these regulators knew in advance that discussions would be made public, particularly in the case where they consult with the Justice Department about a pending prosecution, they might be less beholden to the mega-banks. Transparency might serve as a prophylactic against capture. Public Citizen believes that criminal cases with too-big-to-jail banks deserve this kind of transparency.

Congress should hold hearings on the Segarra case. Helpfully, several leading members have called for hearings, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn), Al Green (D-Texas). If and when they do, Public Citizen believes that solutions including transparency should be accorded a full discussion.

Bartlett Naylor is the financial policy advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

Join Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other lawmakers in calling for hearings to hold the New York Fed accountable for its disgraceful deference to Goldman Sachs and its firing of Carmen Segarra.

This Labor Day, I’ll be thinking about my family.

My great grandfather, an immigrant from eastern Europe who crossed the Atlantic to work in a western Pennsylvania steel mill, died in that mill in 1929 when a piece of industrial equipment came crashing down on him.

His daughter – my grandmother – was less than a year old.

How many millions of families have suffered similar tragedies? The deadly nature of work in the “Steel Valley” is well documented. Local histories and literary classics such as Blood on the Forge and Out of This Furnace testify to this bloody past.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way since 1929, most significantly with the formation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in 1971.

Nevertheless, tragic workplace deaths occur in America almost every day. Scroll through OSHA’s 2014 document recording “FY14 Fatalities and Catastrophes to Date” (PDF), and you’ll begin to get a sense of the lives lost each day that may have been prevented.

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by Burkely Hermann

Lobbying usually gets a bad rap, and sometimes for good reason: it can be part of corporate special interest money’s current corruption of the political system. But during the first-ever national Single-Payer Lobby Day events in May, real people lobbied for a good cause that benefited the general public, not just a wealthy few.

As Congress’ August recess approaches and activists prepare to make in-district visits with their lawmakers’ offices, now is a good opportunity to recall my experience lobbying for single-payer.

As an undergraduate student who is currently interning with Public Citizen, I participated in the second day of events, which kicked off with a training for participants. I saw many different faces in the room, which was filled with about 75 people, ranging from nurses, who are part of National Nurses United, physicians who are members of PNHP, union leaders fighting for healthcare justice and concerned citizens who want a universal and inclusive healthcare system.

Next was an informational panel featuring single-payer advocates, labor leaders and physicians railing against the unjust lack of coverage, administrative waste caused by billing multiple insurance companies and urging Congress to pass a Medicare-for-all single-payer healthcare system. Representatives Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) also spoke to participants about their single-payer bills, H.R. 676 and H.R. 1200. Rep. McDermott focused on building on the existing reforms put in place by the Affordable Care Act, while Conyers advocated directly for single-payer.

Participants in the lobby meetings spoke of single payer as a fair and comprehensive solution to the many shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I joined my fellow Marylander single-payer lobbyists, consisting of physicians, labor leaders, concerned citizens and a dietician. A member of PNHP, which advocates for a national single-payer healthcare system, led our lobbying team, but the group still made decisions collectively.

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