Out of work? Consider a new career as a mortgage lender! You'll make a ton of money and never go to jail! Even if you abuse borrowers! At worst you'll pay a fine that is a fraction of your compensation. Or consider a job as an SEC regulator, because you'll likely end up with a cushy job with a bank you used to regulate.
On Oct. 15 Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Financial, once the nation's largest mortgage lender, agreed to pay more than $67 million in fines to settle a "civil fraud" case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission last year. Believe it or not, civil crimes are "private disputes" between people or organization versus "harmful to society as a whole."
According to The New York Times, apparently this is the first time that a prominent banker has been penalized because securities fraud cases are "complex and difficult to win." Really! Such as those complex emails in which Mozilo admitted that his lending practices were "toxic products" that ultimately cost thousands of homeowners their homes and pension funds a big chunk of their assets?
My contention is that these SEC regulators aren't hard on criminals like Mozilo because they are looking forward to cushy, well-paying jobs working for banks they used to pretend to oversee. The least talked-about sleazy practice on Capitol Hill is the revolving door between politicians who become lobbyists for industries they used to oversee and between regulators who take jobs with companies they used to regulate. This level of corruption doesn't just explain why financial services reform has been watered down but BP's lack of strategy to prevent and tackle the oil spill and the lack of oversight that led to the West Virginia mining disaster that killed 29 people in April, as I pointed out in an earlier post.
In June of this year, Sen. Chuck Grassley of the Senate Finance Committee asked the SEC's Inspector General to review the recent departure of a top SEC official who took a job with a prominent high-frequency trading firm. Grassley's concern stemmed from a Wall Street Journal article about 66 former SEC employees who filed letters in 2008-2009 disclosing clients or new employers they planned to represent before the agency.
It's not just the revolving door culture that's corrupt but the fact that legislators can receive contributions from employees of businesses that their committees oversee -- sounds like a bribe to me. While judges are required to "recuse" themselves from presiding over a trial where there is a conflict-of-interest -- let's say the judge owns a significant amount of stock in a company owned by the defendant--there is no parallel definition of conflict of interest when it comes to lawmakers or regulators.
Who are the brains behind the corrupt revolving-door culture? A famous sleazy Republican and a not-so-famous one. As I pointed out in my book, America, Welcome to the Poorhouse, in 1995, then-House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas teamed up with conservative activist Grover Norquist to launch the "K Street Project." The idea: Republicans would take over the big lobbying firms as successfully as they took hold of the House of Representatives.
Not only are there now 27 lobbyists for every member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, but lobbying outlays have more than doubled from $1.44 billion in 1998 to $3.28 billion a decade later -- so much for McCain Feingold. According to Public Citizen, between 1998 and 2004 some 42% of former House members and 50% of former senators who were available to do so became registered lobbyists. While members of Congress technically have a one- or two-year "cooling-off period" before becoming a lobbyist, it's very likely that the former members will take a "temp job" with a lobbying firm as a "strategic adviser" or some similar title during the so-called cooling-off period, helping to sign up clients.
There are some good guys on Capitol Hill who find this unconscionable. Sen. Michael Bennett, Democrat of Colorado, introduce a bill in April of this year to ban lawmakers from ever being lobbyists. Grassley also filed an amendment to the financial reform bill that would extend the cooling off period for certain employees of regulatory agencies to two years. The amendment wasn't even considered, however.
So where does the Grass-Roots-In-Name-Only Tea Party stand when it comes to this practice? Given that they are fighting financial reform they're probably on the wrong side of the fence. For example, check out the web page of the Cleveland Tea Party Patriots, which is urging visitors to contact key members of Congress and "stop the financial regulation bill" because it creates "brand new innovation-killing regulations" and ends up "micromanaging the market." Right.
That's why we need Democrats to get off their collective butts and either get the bad guys out of office in this election or at least make sure the okay guys don't get creamed by the Tea Party Red Coats. This is literally a make-it-or-break-it year when it comes to politics.