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I’ve just been definitively disinvited, for the second time in my career, from briefing members of Congress (in this case, about derivatives) on the grounds that they fear “bank bashing”.

By Bill Black

When I was the Deputy Director of FSLIC, House Banking Committee Chairman St Germain was helping Speaker Wright hold the FSLIC recapitalization bill hostage to extort favors for Texas control frauds, including Don Dixon’s Vernon Savings (which was providing prostitutes to the State of Texas’ top S&L regulator and was building towards having 96% of its ADC loans in default – which is why we referred to it as “Vermin”).  The attack on our agency was that we were mad dogs biased against Texas S&Ls and causing the Texas crisis by closing too many insolvent but well-run Texas S&Ls.  Our response had many elements, but one of our principal points was that the Texas S&Ls we were closing were typically control frauds.  At this juncture, St Germain’s staffers made a mistake.  They requested that we testify on a host of issues, but the invite letter had a zinger, premised on an article saying that the Feds were slow to prosecute frauds in the Southwest.  The invite specifically called for us to respond and discuss the role of fraud  in the Southwest.  We used the opportunity to explain the extensive role of fraud in Texas S&L failures. 
The day of the hearing, I walked toward the witness table, but was called over by St Germain’s chief of staff.  He proceeded to disinvite us from testifying on the grounds that we had filed non-responsive testimony.  (We had, of course, responded to every inquiry they made.  They simply hated the response because we documented the enormous role that control fraud was playing in causing Texas S&Ls to fail.)
Today, I received definitive word that I had been disinvited from a bipartisan briefing of members of Congress on the subject of financial derivatives.  I have deleted the name of the staffer because he is not the issue.  The relevant email thread is below. 
The member of Congress putting the event together is one of the strongest advocates of the need for banking reform.  I have assisted the Member’s staff in the past in such efforts.  The Member’s chief of staff called me today.  His position is that I was never invited to participate and that it was unfortunate that I booked the flights and put UMKC on the hook for the non-refundable fares and hotel before informing his office that I was accepting their inquiry about participation (as opposed to invitation).  He explains that it is impossible physically to have me participate and that the decision not to have me participate has nothing to do with concerns about “balance” or “bank bashing.”  I emphasize also that, unlike St Germain’s disinvitation the email thread states an interest in inviting me to speak at future briefings.  I hope that such invitations will be made.  The Member and the Member’s staff were polite while St Germain’s chief of staff was deliberately rude.
Nevertheless, I think that the Chief of Staff’s phone call to me explaining their view that I was never invited makes my point.  We all know that is simple to add a panelist.  What is really going on is that things are so toxic in Congress now, and the largest banks are so sensitive to any criticism, that the progressives fear that any criticism of bank practices that will cause the next financial crisis will be considered “bank bashing” and will cause Republicans to be unwilling to participate.  The fact that I have a 30 year record of non-partisan service to the nation on banking matters, including service as a banker with the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, does not count in such a world.  We must not speak uncomfortable truths to power.  You will see that it is his staff that informed me that the concerns that prevented me from joining the panel were maintaining a “consensus” about the panel’s “balance” and avoiding “bank bashing.”
I remain supportive, of course, of members of Congress reaching out and getting facts about our financial system, so I hope that the Member’s efforts to create a series of bipartisan briefings succeed.  Self-censorship, however, is most debilitating form of censorship.  A “consensus” that seeks to minimize any criticism of the “too big to fail” banks on the grounds that criticism equates to “bank bashing” is a consensus to play ostrich.     
Excerpts from the e mail thread:
Sent: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 5:34 PM
To: Black, William
Subject: Re: Financial Services Panel Series: Derivatives
Mr. Black,
It was nice speaking with you earlier and I thank you for your consideration.  Currently, the panel information is as follows:
Financial Services Panel Series: Derivatives Thursday, May 31
2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Rayburn 2226
Moderator: – CNBC or Bloomberg
Wallace Turbeville – Senior Fellow, Demos (Formerly of Goldman Sachs) -John Parsons – Senior Lecturer in Finance, MIT -Nela Richardson – Senior Economic Analyst, Bloomberg Government (formerly of Freddie Mac and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission) -Marcus Stanley – Policy Director, Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) -Chris Young – International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) -Mark Calabria – Dir. Of Financial Regulation Studies, CATO Institute
Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.
From: Black, William []
Sent: Thursday, May 24, 2012 10:28 PM
Subject: RE: Financial Services Panel Series: Derivatives
I am pleased to accept your invitation to participate on the panel.  My cell is [redacted].  I’ll be flying in from California.  Please send me information on logistics/venue etc. as soon as you have more details.
Best regards,
May 25, 2012  10:36 a.m.
I want to sincerely thank you for your willingness to participate and contribute to the discussion. Unfortunately, we cannot add any additional participants to the panel. In efforts to proceed in a bipartisan manner, we have achieved a nice balance of individuals who will accommodate various points of views on derivatives regulations. Accordingly, adding another participant at this time would disrupt that balance and will spark concerns with our Republican colleagues.
I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused, but I do hope you will consider joining us for the next panel we are convening to discuss the Volcker Rule. Next week’s panel is intended to be the first in a series and I intend to reach out to you again and Mr. Greenberg.
Thanks again for your assistance and the resources you provided earlier in the week. And I hope you enjoy the Memorial Day weekend.
Best regards,
Sent using BlackBerry
> From: Black, William []
> Sent: Friday, May 25, 2012 02:17 PM
> To:
> Subject: Re: Financial Services Panel Series: Derivatives
> We have already booked the flights and hotel in response to your invitation.  Please reconsider.
> This will cause our school a serious loss and me considerable embarrassment after I called in favors to be able to accept.
From: Black, William []
Sent: Friday, May 25, 2012 02:33 PM
Subject: Re: Financial Services Panel Series: Derivatives
FYI, I have testified to Congress five times about this crisis and two of those appearances (once in each chamber) were as the Republican designated witness so I won’t throw off any bipartisan balance—quite the opposite.
Sent: Sun 5/27/2012 11:16 AM
In case you did not receive my voice message I wanted to once again apologize for any incovenience you may have incurred and thank you for your willingness to participate.  As I mentioned before, in the time between my initial call to your office and when we spoke last week, I had confirmed the participation of several others who agreed to do so under the understanding that the panel would be bipartisan and non confrontational.  Quite frankly, many of the trade associations were hesitant to speak in public because of what they thought would be a public ‘bank bashing.’  So for this initial panel, we have tread carefully because we want Republican participation and we want to keep these forums ongoing.  It is my hope that your colleagues and university will understand that we tried to accomodate another participant, but we just could not make it work without disrupting consensus.  I will be in touch with you regarding the next panel we are organizing to discuss the Volcker Rule.

Tuesday 5/29/12  10:41 a.m.
Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate an additional participant.  I understand and appreciate your experience, but the factors I outlined in the previous email still exist and this change would compromise the consensus we have achieved.  I do wish you would have confirmed your availability with me before making arrangements.  When we last spoke, it was my understanding that you had to check your schedule first.  So I was a little surprised that you were so quickly able to clear your schedule and make flight arrangements before we had a follow-up conversation.  In any event, your previous work as a regulator during the S&L crisis is highly noted and I do think your primary knowledge and insight is helpful as Congress and the agencies grapple with the 21st century financial regulation.  To that end, I do hope you will consider participation in the follow up panel, and I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience you have incurred. 
Bill Black

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

Career-limiting gestures—that’s when someone stands up at work, or someone who works in government, or even academia, and stands up on principle and takes a stand against those in power, and does so knowing it will limit or even perhaps destroy their career.

Well, if you do that today, you’re supposed to be naive. Well, now joining us, if that’s true, is one of the more naive people in America, and his name is Bill Black. Bill is an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. He’s a white-collar criminologist and former financial regulator. He’s the author of the book The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One. And he’s someone who very recently went public with a dis-invitation from a session being organized by Congress. Hi, Bill. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: And Bill’s in Washington with a little more time on his hands than he expected. So, Bill, what’s the story?

BLACK: Well, I was invited to be part of a panel that was supposed to be a bipartisan effort, organized in the House, to brief members of Congress on financial derivatives. And I accepted the invitation to come to the panel. And when I accepted it, they informed me that I was no longer invited. But, of course, we had already booked the plane and the hotel and such, which is not refundable. So this was a bit startling.

JAY: And you went public with this. You wrote an initial blog where you actually made the email trail public, deleting some of the personal names. And then today, I guess, you released a much longer piece about the importance of career-limiting gestures and the kind of political pressure and toxicity in Washington now that—such that you would be disinvited because what you believe was they thought you’d be too critical of the banks. So what is your take on why they asked you not to come?

BLACK: Well, what they wrote was it was fear of bank-bashing. And a consensus had been reached between the parties on balance, and that if I were added to the panel, I would violate that consensus. So—and it also used the word fear of being confrontational in connection with the bank-bashing.

Now, to state the obvious, if the problem is so-called balance, if I’m added to the panel, you add somebody else to the panel and you have your balance. I’m not sure what dimension this is supposedly being balanced on, because I’m already balanced. I’ve appeared five times before Congress to testify on a range of issues, including before the Senate on financial derivatives. Three of the times I was named by Democrats, two by Republicans, the two most recent times. You can’t get any more balanced than that in five invitations, three and two. And I have a whole history over 30 years of—well, you know, for example, I’m known for being the person who blew the whistle on Speaker Wright, one of the most prominent Democrats. Four of the five senators that we blew the whistle on who were part of the Keating Five were Democrats. And I’m a Democrat, but, of course, not a terribly political Democrat at all. So it’s hard to believe I would have created any balance issues, since I’m the most balanced person who was invited to the entire panel.

JAY: So talk a bit about more who’s on the panel and what was the panel supposed to be doing, and then why wouldn’t they want to hear from you. But start with exactly what it was.

BLACK: Well, it’s supposed to be a briefing on financial derivatives, and, you know, it appears that this was going to be first in a series of them. And it appears that this one is [prompted] by concerns raised by JPMorgan’s two—now three (at least, and growing) billion dollar loss on financial derivatives. The panel consists of people who, you know, I think all should be [invited] and it does have some very conservative folks from—the Cato Institute has a representative from the industry. It has a number of other people who worked in the industry.

But it doesn’t have have—well, it doesn’t have any criminologists, even though I’d say that that’s the leading area of expertise you need to understand the role of financial derivatives in the crisis. It doesn’t have anyone that actually served as a regulator, in the normal sense of the word, that they were out, you know, helping to supervise or examine, or taking enforcement actions, or closing places, or suing them. It doesn’t have anyone who’s ever [led] a re-regulatory effort. You know, a whole host of things it doesn’t have, and I was the obvious person on that panel that was going to provide those perspectives.

The thing that really concerns me is not the dis-invitation, per se, but the reason for it of the bank-bashing. And the idea—. I mean, now let’s step back for a second. I’m an associate professor at a third-tier university in the flyover states, the University of Missouri–Kansas City. Now, we actually have a superb economic department, but none of those people know that. And the idea that the top members of the industry, who make, you know, $10 million a year, would be too afraid to appear in a session briefing Congress if I was there giving contrary facts, I mean, if that’s true, then that tells you more than you need to know about why capitalism in America has self-destructed, ’cause, you know, if they’re afraid of me and petrified in their bones about bank-bashing, they really can’t take on the competition among other bankers anywhere in the world.

JAY: Now, the email back and forth, which you published, one of the emails, kind of from this chief of staff of the person who—of the congressional member who organized all of this—you don’t actually mention his name, but I suppose it wouldn’t be hard for people to go figure it out—anyway, he holds out for you. He says, you know, it wouldn’t work for this panel, but we’re planning another one soon, and we’re going to invite you and Michael Greenberger, and we’ll be reaching out to you soon. But in the piece you wrote as a follow-up, you said this kind of carrot is the way they kind of deal with these things and that part of standing up on these issues of principle is you can’t kind of be taken in by this kind of carrot. What did you mean?

BLACK: Yeah, that’s exactly it. And, indeed, he called me out this morning to ream me out for a substantial phone call. And that’s the job of the chief of staff. Everybody understands that.

But his point was it must be all ego on my part, and to me it’s exactly the opposite. The ego is precisely the bait. You know, hey, if you play along, you’ll get invited to these kinds of things. And as he made clear on the phone call today, if you do what I did, you’re not going to get invited to the Hill to do these kinds of things. And you have to say, I don’t care. You have to be the opposite of ego in the way he talks about it.

JAY: Hence the term career-limiting gesture.

BLACK: Hence yet another career-limiting gesture. And I would plead guilty to being someone who has committed many CLGs.

JAY: Now—but you do point out in your article that the congressperson who’s organizing all this you think actually has some intent about reform and has been one of the better people on the Hill about this.

BLACK: Absolutely. And indeed—.

JAY: Who are we talking about? This can’t be hard to figure out. Who’s the congressperson we’re talking about here?

BLACK: I have—no. I mean, the reason I didn’t name them is it’s not about the individuals. It’s not about, you know, anything personal. It’s about the fact that one of the most progressive members of the Congress is not permitted to have me as a witness because the industry has a veto. And the industry has a veto because anybody that criticizes them is—potentially falls into this bank bashing category. And when we censor, as progressives, in that fashion, when we give in to that, there is no real debate anymore. This is not an insult to any of the members of Congress, to the Chief of Staff, or to the other panelists, who are fine people. But this sends the worst conceivable message, and it does so in the very first of the hearing, where you’re laying down the de facto rules to these things.

JAY: Is this a reflection or a small example of something far more deeper and profound, and that is that there’s been a kind of tipping point—and what I mean by that is if you look back over, you know, at least since the 1930s, if not earlier, a sort of struggle within the economic and financial political elite, between those forces who want to say there has to be some control, mitigation over the role of finance in society or it does—it spirals the whole economy into deep crisis, and those forces within the elite who simply say, you know, we’re worried about how much money we can make this quarter and back the hell off? Is there been a kind of tipping point where those forces that are only interested in today and tomorrow’s money and après moi, le déluge, have they kind of won, and in a sense that real regulation may not be possible anymore and there needs to be something new, I mean, a whole different kind of politics?

BLACK: To date they swept the field. To date they caused the biggest financial crisis in 75 years, in which just the U.S. household sector has lost $11 trillion, where Europe has been utterly devastated, where 6 million Americans lost their job, significantly more than that in Europe lost their job, where another 6 million jobs were not created in America that would have been created (again, similar in Europe), and absolutely nothing fundamental has changed. And on top of that, you can’t even criticize them for it. If you have a fundamental criticism and say that the systemically dangerous institutions pose an unacceptable risk to the global economy, that they must be shrunk to the point where they no longer pose such a global risk, if you add to that—. Look at the last crisis. It was the SDIs, the systemically dangerous institutions, gambling and engaging in fraudulent transactions in financial derivatives that caused the crisis. And we have come out with a proposed rule, at this point, that would completely gut the Volcker rule and allow the institutions to do exactly the same thing again.

I mean, what would it take in America to have a fundamental reform? And, of course, it’s not just America; it’s Europe as well. So, yes, if a newly elected president in the United States said what the newly elected chief of state in France said, Hollande, you know, that I have an enemy and its name is Finance, we would consider the American president a communist and probably shoot him on sight.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Bill.

BLACK: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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William K. Black, author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, teaches economics and law at the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC). He was the Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention from 2005-2007. He has taught previously at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and at Santa Clara University, where he was also the distinguished scholar in residence for insurance law and a visiting scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Black was litigation director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, deputy director of the FSLIC, SVP and general counsel of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and senior deputy chief counsel, Office of Thrift Supervision. He was deputy director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement.

Black developed the concept of "control fraud" frauds in which the CEO or head of state uses the entity as a "weapon." Control frauds cause greater financial losses than all other forms of property crime combined. He recently helped the World Bank develop anti-corruption initiatives and served as an expert for OFHEO in its enforcement action against Fannie Mae's former senior management.