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Thievery Under the TARP

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We are being robbed big-time, but you can't say we haven't been warned. Not after the release Tuesday of a scathing report by the Treasury Department's special inspector general, who charged that the aptly named Troubled Asset Relief Fund bailout program is rife with mismanagement and potential for fraud. The IG's office already has opened 20 criminal fraud investigations into the $700 billion program, which is now well on its way to a $3 trillion obligation, and the IG predicts many more are coming.

Special Inspector General Neil M. Barofsky charged that the TARP program from its inception was designed to trust the Wall Street recipients of the bailout funds to act responsibly on their own, without accountability to the government that gave them the money.

He pointed to the example of AIG, which has acted as a conduit of funds to the banks it had insured without being required to tell the government what it is doing: "Failure to impose this requirement with respect to the injection of yet another $30 billion into AIG would not only be a failure of oversight, but could call into question the credibility of the government's efforts."

AIG is just one example in a bailout that has left the financial conglomerates unsupervised as they spend taxpayer money in what the report termed a government program of "unprecedented scope, scale and complexity," putting the public and the Treasury Department in the dark as to how the money is being used by the very tycoons who got us into this mess. "The American people have a right to know how their tax dollars are being used," Barofsky wrote in the report, which sharply criticized the government for failing to hold financial institutions accountable.

For all of its criticism of the original program, designed by the Bush administration, the report was equally severe in denouncing the Obama administration's plan to partner with hedge funds and other private capital groups to buy up the "toxic" holdings of the banks. Charging that the plan carries "significant fraud risks," the inspector general's report pointed out that almost all of the risk in this new trillion-dollar plan is being borne by the taxpayers. The so-called private investors would be able to put up money they borrowed from the Fed through "nonrecourse" loans, meaning if the toxic assets purchased prove too toxic and the scheme failed, the private investors could just walk away without repaying the Fed for those loans.

The reason those loans may prove even more toxic than expected and the price paid by this government-underwritten partnership far too high is that the government is purchasing the most suspect of the banks' mortgage packages. In addition, the plan is to accept at face value the evaluation of those packages by the very same credit-rating firms whose absurdly wrong estimates of the dollar worth of these securities helped create the problem that now haunts the world's economy. "Arguably, the wholesale failure of the credit rating agencies to rate adequately such securities is at the heart of the securitization market collapse, if not the primary cause of the current credit crisis," the report found.

As with the entire banking bailout, the new plan of Obama's treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is likely to enrich the very folks who impoverished the rest of us, as the report notes: "The significant government-financed leverage presents a great incentive for collusion between the buyer and seller of the asset, or the buyer and other buyers, whereby, once again, the taxpayer takes a significant loss while others profit."

At the heart of this potentially massive fraud was the original decision of Henry Paulson, President Bush's treasury secretary and a former Goldman Sachs chairman, to not require the recipients of the bailout, such as his old firm, to account for how the money was spent. Unfortunately, President Obama's administration continued that practice.

The only difference is that the amount of public money being put at risk is now far greater, and the hedge funds, which are totally unregulated, have been brought in as the central players. One of the largest of those hedge funds, D.E. Shaw, carried Obama's top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, on its payroll to the tune of $5.2 million last year. He may have reason to trust these secretive enterprises that operate beyond the law, but the public does not.

Robert Scheer is editor in chief of Truthdig and author of The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America.