Category Archives: Politics

Wells Fargo Fraud Evidences Troubling Trend.

Recent news of the massive fraud perpetuated by thousands of Wells Fargo employees exposes troubling trends with America’s great institutions. According to multiple reports the company opened up more than 2 million fake accounts for customers who did not request them. Ongoing since at least 2011 (though it now appears it may have begun as early as 2009), the fraud negatively impacted consumer credit ratings and resulted in fees charged to account holders.

If you or I illegally opened an account under someone else’s name, we would be criminally charged with fraud and/or identity theft and almost certainly spend time in jail. But not so with our nation’s banks. Not so with corporate weasels and their minions. No one faces criminal charges. No one goes to jail.

In fact, CEO John Stumpf refuses to call it fraud, insisting it was simply an ethical lapse. But his refusal to come clean doesn’t stop there. He also contends low-level and low-wage employees executed the fraud without involvement or awareness of senior leaders and executives. Nothing systemic, he claims with a straight face. In the aftermath 5,400 employees were fired while the executive who oversaw the department received a $125 million golden parachute to retire.

Essentially, Stumpf wants us to believe that he and other Wells Fargo executives are the brains and talent behind all the success the bank enjoys (and therefore deserving of their eight and nine figure compensation packages) but have no responsibility for anything nefarious that occurs in the bowels of the company. Like other corporate shysters, Stumpf wants it both ways. Claims credit for the good. Pleads ignorance for the bad.

It reminds me of the court scene in the movie, A Few Good Men. Jack Nicholson’s character has just chastised Tom Cruise’s character for suggesting he doesn’t have control over his military base, Guantanamo Bay. He explains his soldiers always obey orders; otherwise people die. After he allows the jury to absorb that assertion, Cruise wonders how it is that two of Nicholson’s soldiers administered a code red – a serious form of discipline – against a third soldier since Nicholson previously claimed to have ordered the practice stopped. Nicholson hems and haws and says the two men charged for the crime took matters into their own hands. No, Cruise reminds Nicholson, that’s not what happens on your base. Soldiers obey orders or people die. He goes on to expose the colonel for the lying hypocrite he is.

Which brings us back to Stumpf and Wells Fargo. How is it possible for so hideous and extensive a practice to thrive unabated and unknown for more than five years? Either Stumpf and his leadership team are utterly incompetent and therefore undeserving of their plutocratic incomes or, like Nicholson’s character, they knew what was going on and chose to ignore it until it became public – at which point they shifted to cover-up mode.

Like other corporate executives who administer cultures of fraud, greed, and unethical behavior, Stumpf believes us fools. And he knows the American system is designed to allow such behavior to continue. Sure he has to go before a Senate committee, take a few bi-partisan whacks, and suffer several minutes of public shame. But tomorrow it’s back to the basics of pretense and fabrication.

Sadly, neither Stumpf nor Wells Fargo will suffer any substantive consequences. The bank was fined a figure that amounts to peanuts relative to its considerable annual profit. Stumpf will remain at the helm and continue to rake in his hefty income. The Senate committee threw some shade but otherwise accomplished nothing.

What needs to happen (as well as what this says about modern capitalism and our government) is another story. I’ll offer thoughts on those subjects in subsequent posts in the next week or two. Suffice it to say on this issue dramatic change is required because our nation can no longer tolerate the pattern of fraud, dishonesty, and malfeasance that permeates a growing number of banks, corporations, and insurance companies. Their prioritization of profit over integrity is changing more than the culture of corporate America; it’s changing the culture of America itself. And that evolution leads down a primrose path of peril. So it must stop and it must stop now.

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Refugee Response Reveals Selfish Spirit.

Throughout history the Church has aligned itself too often with monarchs, regimes, governments, and political parties that institute policies, practices, and philosophies that contravene Scripture and challenge Jesus’ teachings. In almost all of these instances the Church has sided with the powerful, wealthy, and influential at the expense of the weak, poor, and ostracized.

While such alliances have yielded power, prosperity, and prominence for the Church it has come at great cost, undermining and often severing its relationship with God. For those who view Christianity as nothing more than a means to achieve selfish and worldly goals, that consequence seems immaterial. But for believers who yearn to obey and glorify God, that effect is disastrous and troublesome.

Sadly, another example of this trend has emerged recently in this country. A growing number of voices within the Christian community (especially among Evangelicals and self-professed conservatives) have resisted plans to allow refugees from North Africa and the Middle East (particularly Syria) to enter the United States. They claim their motivation lies in protecting the nation’s safety and security, and insist that the possibility of terrorists hiding among refugees, however remote, combined with the government’s inability to identify and remove those terrorists before they cross our borders, requires a hardline stance against any program involving refugees from countries with a strong terrorist network. Some also argue we cannot afford to admit immigrants because the cost is too high.

Those positions, however, reveal a spirit of selfishness and a passion for maintaining the status quo. Worse, they demonstrate a remarkably ill-informed understanding of Scripture and a lack of faith in God. When did Jesus ever advise His followers to only do the right thing when it is safe, convenient, or inexpensive? Never. His message focused on helping and loving others no matter the cost. In fact, He went to great lengths to explain that His example of love, mercy, kindness, and generosity would impose considerable cost on His followers. We need look no further than the parable of the Good Samaritan to grasp this truth.

In that parable a man is attacked, robbed, and left for dead by thieves. Two self-righteous religious leaders (a priest and a Levite) come across the man on separate occasions and both move to the opposite side of the road to pass. They express no concern for his well-being or survival, and fail to offer love and kindness. Their faith is useless. Both men ignored the opportunity to demonstrate faith in substance by helping the stranger. Instead, both viewed him with contempt, treating him as a potential threat, an inconvenience, and a roadblock to more important things.

In contrast, the compassionate Samaritan saw the humanity of the injured man and exercised love, compassion, and mercy toward him even though it cost him time and money, and jeopardized his safety. His selfless sacrifice exhibited a notable contrast to the selfish pride of the two religious zealots. Jesus’ message could not have been clearer: Genuine faith always manifests itself in action, not in self-righteousness or outward appearances.

What does it say about God and our faith in Him, then, when we ignore His teachings in order to stay safe, remain comfortable, and enjoy the good life? In adamantly opposing the relocation of battered, marginalized, and oppressed refugees to the United States, our actions and language reveal a great deal about our beliefs. We are essentially telling God:

  • “We do not believe you are powerful enough to protect us if we do the right thing and embrace your call to love others, especially our downtrodden neighbors in the Middle East.”
  • “We do not believe you are omniscient and therefore cannot trust you to help our law enforcement community to identify and remove terrorists who might try to sneak in with beleaguered refugees.”
  • “We do not believe you care about the safety, welfare, and survival of those escaping the brutalities of the Middle East and North Africa as much as you care about us maintaining our lifestyles of comfort, pleasure, and leisure.”

What a sad testament to the condition of our Christianity when we categorically ignore and reject what God’s word says about our responsibility to refugees and ‘the least of these’ and instead embrace a false gospel that declares our wealth, safety, and lifestyle of greater importance to God.

I wonder if, perhaps, God is using the tumultuous events in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere to accomplish the Great Commission, which remains unfulfilled in part because we fail to prioritize it in our churches and our lives. While we have made some progress, we have not made nearly enough – especially in light of the overwhelming resources God has provided us. In a country where the average Christian gives about 2% of his income to the Church, and the Church spends more than 90% of its funds on programs, priorities, and capital projects that benefit its own congregants, it is safe to say we have been negligent in prioritizing God’s call to reach the world with His good news and His love.

So in His wisdom He might now be bringing the world to us; not just Syrians, Iraqis, and Somalians, but also Latin Americans and Asians. He is giving us a second chance to reach all tribes and nations of the world. And what is our response? Is it joyful celebration that God is providing us another opportunity to join Him in His work? No. It is vocal opposition to their admittance and advocacy for stronger laws that keep foreigners out.

With that response we risk failing God a second time. Moreover, what message does that response send the world? They might rightfully ask, ‘Where is your love, compassion, generosity, and mercy?’, and might reasonably conclude that any God whose people are so selfish and inwardly focused is no God worth pursuing. What a sad testimony to leave our non-believing friends, family, and neighbors. Let’s instead leave a legacy of God’s love in action and capitalize on the second chance He is offering us to make Him known to all peoples.

If instead we continue (as a nation and as Christians) to turn our backs on the oppressed, the hurting, the marginalized, and the condemned, it should not surprise us when God turns His back on us.

 

Brady, Clinton, and the Art of Deception.

New chapters were written this week in two ongoing sagas in the worlds of politics and sports. First, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell upheld the four-game suspension of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his alleged role in Deflate-Gate. Later, news broke that a two-month gap exists in released e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s private server, which she used to conduct official business during her time as Secretary of State; the gap corresponds with a time of intensifying violence in Libya.

Both narratives involve alleged wrongdoers destroying potential evidence and then demanding we believe their assertions that nothing incriminating existed on the devices they eradicated. Brady allegedly destroyed his cell phone and SIM card just before he was scheduled to meet with NFL investigators about his role in Deflate-Gate and insists he took the action because he had recently purchased a new phone. The timing was mere coincidence, he argues.

Similarly, Clinton’s campaign, while admitting that thousands of e-mails from her e-mail account were destroyed, insist that only those her team deemed personal were discarded and withheld from investigators. She also allegedly wiped clean the server she employed for her e-mail, making it impossible for anyone to recover documents previously stored on it.

Brady and Clinton appear to be following the same script, one increasingly popular for dealing with legal troubles, public scandals, and public relations nightmares: destroy anything that might corroborate alleged wrongdoing and then insist nothing of evidentiary value was on the device or document. That tact allows the accused to pursue a path of plausible deniability in which they inform investigators and the public alike that no evidence exists of their wrongdoing. If that all seems rather convenient for the defendant, well, it is – and by design.

While such a strategy may prevent an actionable legal remedy in court, it ought not preclude judgment in the court of public opinion. We need not suspend common sense or avoid exercising sound judgment in arriving at an informed decision as to what happened. We can decide whether a series of improbable coincidences is just that or points to something more devious. And we ought to keep in mind that those destroying potential evidence realize the optics will look bad for them and proceed anyway. That certainly suggests something to hide.

Defenders, of course, perform all manner of linguistic gyrations to preserve the integrity and innocence of their candidate, their teammate, or their hero. They refuse to employ objectivity in arriving at what happened. Like thousand-dollar-an-hour attorneys, they decry the absence of evidence and like rabid dogs bark the mantra of presumed innocence. And certainly we never want to lose sight of that precious presumption.

But we ought also keep in mind the legal principle of res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for ‘the facts speak for themselves.’ Though primarily used in tort law, the doctrine infers culpability despite the lack of direct evidence. In the Brady and Clinton escapades, it means we ought not ignore the fact that destroying cell phones and servers say a great deal about potential evidence on the devices.

Sadly, this trend is not limited to Clinton or Brady, or to politicians and athletes. It is an epidemic plaguing the nation. It is born of a worldview that declares as long as no one can prove you misbehaved it never really happened. It dovetails nicely with the outlook that the ends always justify the means. Paired together, these philosophies teach us to do whatever it takes to achieve our goals and reach the pinnacle of success. And if in the process ethical lines are crossed, legal standards are breached, and the distinction between right and wrong is blurred, well so be it.

As a result, we have more and more athletes who do whatever necessary to win world championships, politicians who rewrite history to keep alive presidential aspirations, and businessmen who do anything to make a buck. If as a society we do not do a better job censuring deceit and the destruction of evidence, then eventually it will become a societal norm. And if we continue to look the other way and ignore transgressions because the accused plays for our team, represents our political persuasion, or earns us an enviable profit, then we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves when honesty disappears from the country, like incriminating evidence on a politician’s or athlete’s electronic device.

Time for Justice Department to Apply Real Deterrents to Bank Malfeasance

Why does the Justice Department continue to provide mere lip service in holding big banks accountable for egregious financial crimes instead of aggressively prosecuting them in a manner that will substantively deter future malfeasance? Too often Federal prosecutors adopt a ‘wink and nod’ approach to crimes on Wall Street rather than acting vigorously to eliminate them. The most recent example involves four of the world’s largest banks: Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays PLC, and The Royal Bank of Scotland.

According to reports the four will plead guilty to felony charges of conspiracy to manipulate global financial markets, specifically foreign currency markets, over a five-year period from December 2007 to January 2013. Though the four (and a fifth bank, UBS AG) will pay fines that approach $5.8 billion, none of the banks lose their ability to continue trading in the markets in which they committed their violations. Moreover, the Federal Government refuses to hold bank executives personally responsible for the collusion and for allowing an environment of illicit conduct to thrive.

While we expect Republican administrations to coddle the thieves of Wall Street, things were supposed to be much different with the Obama administration. He promised to go after those wolves much more forcefully than the previous administration and put an end to illegal activities that enrich the über-wealthy and often threaten the stability of our economy. Instead, we get more of the same despite newly confirmed Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s claim that the penalties are “fitting” and will “deter” future illegality.

Nonsense! Until Justice bans violators from participating in future business activity in those markets in which illegal activity occurred, no bank is properly incented to curb its appetite for illegitimate profits. And until it holds bank executives personally liable for the conduct of their traders, the environment for such illegality will continue to thrive. The Justice Department needs to quit behaving like one of the boys in the Wall Street fraternity. Instead of administering modest slaps on the hand and declaring victory it needs to bare some real teeth and adopt an adversarial posture against those banks who repeatedly commit financial crimes, which means banning banks from future activity in markets where an offense occurs and prosecuting bank executives criminally and requesting lengthy prison terms for those found guilty.

Anything less is just more of the same. And that is very disappointing considering all the fanfare President Obama generated in (rightfully) targeting bank malfeasance.

Investigative Reporting: RIP

The new Jeremy Renner thriller, Kill the Messenger, purportedly recounts the discovery and subsequent reporting of the CIAs involvement in the distribution of crack cocaine to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s. While the unraveling of this controversial arrangement offers an interesting historical narrative, the more compelling storyline is the response of the national media to journalist Gary Webb’s explosive report. Instead of investing resources to dig further into uncovering the extent of the government’s involvement, elite media outlets instead focus their sights on destroying Webb’s reputation and providing cover for the CIA. It is a shameful stain on the legacy of investigative journalism.

Sadly, that approach has marked the journalism profession during the tenure of the Obama administration. Rather than dedicate relentless effort to exposing acts of deception, malfeasance, abuse, incompetence and political intimidation, the media have decided to protect the White House. They demonize and sully the reputation of any reporter or bureau with the backbone to investigate stories unfavorable to the administration.

This embarrassing abdication of professional duty has dire consequences on America and the corridors of power in Washington. It emboldens officials to lie, deceive, and act in the interest of the president and his party instead of for the benefit of the American people. Aware the national media will pursue no rigorous, independent investigation of their misdeeds, the administration operates with a license to advance their agenda by any means necessary, truth and legality be damned.

In contrast to the cozy, symbiotic relationship that currently exists between the White House and media, previous administrations encountered more aggressive correspondents. Journalists acted as attack dogs and bloodhounds on the scent of any inappropriate conduct in the Executive branch. They pursued stories tirelessly, irrespective of whether they agreed with the policies of an administration. Now they behave like lapdogs, content to rest comfortably and digest whatever narrative the president offers.

I applaud investigative reporters of yesteryear who revealed transgressions committed by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Their dogged determination to uncover the story and expose the crimes and deceits of government officials is commendable. We need a healthy, vigorous, and skeptical press for our government to operate optimally. It is as critical to good governance as a strong and independent judiciary.

Reporters need to return to the days of asking, what is the truth, instead of asking, will this story hurt the administration I support? That dramatic shift in philosophy changes the reporter from an investigative journalist to an administration advocate. We have too many of the latter. What we need now are more of the former, trained to pursue their profession with passion and integrity. What we need now is investigative journalism to rise from its slumber and hold administration and government officials accountable for any and all misdeeds.

Time to change our political system.

The current political environment in our nation attracts a certain type of individual to run for office. Unfortunately, such people are not the ones we need running the country. With Russia and Ukraine on the brink of war, ISIS galvanizing strength with its penchant for brutality, storm clouds forming in East Asia, and a host of domestic issues plaguing this nation, we need a new breed of leaders not the same old politicians.

We need men and women who place the welfare of this nation first, not their own reelection. Instead we have politicians who say anything to get elected, irrespective of how deceptive or inaccurate their comments. They convince themselves and their constituents that politics requires such behavior because their opponent will say or do anything to defeat them. As a result, we have two chambers of Congress filled with lying, conniving, self-serving men and women.

In contrast, we need individuals who speak with honesty and integrity and demand the same of their political allies and supporters. We need men and women who serve with humility – who serve their constituents not their party. Humility requires senators and congressmen recognize they don’t have all the answers and work collaboratively with the other side of the aisle. Their first instinct is to identify common ground with peers and develop solutions for the nation’s problems, not lock horns, saber-rattle, and frustrate progress. Sadly, most politicians do what their party wants and adopt an all-or-nothing approach to legislation. Compromise is viewed with disdain.

It should surprise no one, then, that the men and women who would serve admirably in Congress and achieve significant results for our nation rarely entertain the idea of running for office. They are unwilling to subject themselves and their families to the ruthless, despicable, and mean-spirited rhetoric that courses through most campaigns. They are equally unwilling to level such corrosive discourse against their opponents because they value integrity and respect more than victory. Sadly, our current system appeals to those who value victory more than veracity or gentility.

We need a new political structure that displaces the two party system currently in place, which is destroying America. Leadership from both parties focuses too much attention on securing and maintaining majority power and too little on making the nation great. They exploit for political gain every misstep of the other party and its leadership. They play political gotcha with each other’s statements.

Both parties frame elections in ridiculously inflammatory terms. One side argues the other side opposes our nation’s safety, promotes lawlessness, and despises freedom. The other side insists its opponents are waging a war on women, hates the poor, and is racist. Such extreme language accomplishes nothing except fuel the bombastic cancer corrupting the capital. Unfortunately, painting opponents as extremists appears to persuade a majority of voters and so the season of silliness continues. On that point voters bear a portion of the blame for the decline of our government’s effectiveness.

We need a new system and new breed of politician because the two parties share disturbingly similar positions on critical issues, despite their supposed differences. Perhaps most problematic is that both parties are beholden to advancing the interests of wealthy individuals and corporations, at the expense of the middle class and poor. Money funds campaigns. So neither party will ever prioritize the good of the country over those with obscene wealth – they can’t afford to. The ubiquitous campaign ads in which candidates claim to support the middle-class are fraudulent, mere rhetoric to hoodwink voters. Politicians advance the interests of the middle-class only when it aligns with the interests of the elite.

Additionally, both parties covet power and will do anything to retain it. Sitting senators and congressmen exert enormous power and influence. So it’s no surprise federal elections attract those who lust for power and want to monetize that clout. In contrast, those lacking a passion for influence and affluence rarely possess political ambitions. Any desire to make a difference in Washington is outweighed by the sleaziness they would have to subject themselves. Capital Hill is not for anyone unwilling to get a little shady.

Bottom line is, we can do better. We must do better. Our current system serves the interest of no one except corrupt politicians, the well connected, industry elites, and the uber wealthy. We cannot afford to maintain a political structure designed to help those groups. It’s time we replace the current construct with one that genuinely serves the people rather than gives it lip service.

Polls suggest GOP Senate takeover.

A slew of new CBS News/NYT/YouGov polls of Senate races suggest a growing likelihood the GOP reclaims the Senate in elections this fall. Let’s inspect the polling data and methodology of those polls first before examining the results.

Unlike most polls, these were conducted entirely online and not via telephone. Also, these polls surveyed registered rather than likely voters, meaning they probably underestimate the performance of the more motivated political party – the GOP this year. Finally, the pollsters weighted results to align with 2012 voting demographics, which again probably underestimates GOP performance since President Obama’s presence on the 2012 ballot motivated greater numbers of Democratic voters who typically sit out off-year elections.

With those caveats noted, the polls generally produced a margin of error (MoE) in the 3.0% range for any given state, suggesting a reasonable point-in-time poll. Results should encourage GOP leaders that a takeover of the Senate this fall is well within reach. The GOP currently holds 45 seats which means it must capture an additional 6 seats to control the Senate. Let’s consider the likeliest scenario for achieving that number based on these recent polls (I recognize other polls have slightly different results but focused on the CBS/NYT polls since they offer a consistent methodology and occurred over the same time period).

The Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia seats have always been considered the most likely to flip parties and polling in those states certainly support this. In fact, Steve Daines now leads incumbent (by appointment) John Walsh by sixteen points, 56-40. How much Walsh’s recent alleged plagiarism plays a role in these results is unclear, but a sixteen-point deficit at this stage in an election is a nearly insurmountable challenge.

Next, let’s consider incumbents who poll under fifty percent, which generally suggests a seat is in serious jeopardy. Four Democratic Senators currently poll under that threshold: Mark Pryor (AR) who trails Republican Tom Cotton by four points (50-46); Kay Hagan (NC) who is a one-point underdog to state-house leader Thom Tillis (48-47); Mary Landrieu (LA) trails Bill Cassidy by a single point (47-46); and Mark Begich (AK) who leads Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell (47-45). While each of these contests is within the margin of error and is appropriately considered a toss-up at this stage of the race, history suggests that undecided votes break for the challenger on Election Day. The GOP needs to pick-up three of these seats to control the Senate and that seems very possible, perhaps even probable at this moment in time (assuming that Landrieu does not avoid a run-off and Treadwell wins his party’s nomination over his far less electable opponents).

There are, however, two seats Democrats have set their sights on flipping from the Republicans: Kentucky and Georgia. In the former, Senator McConnell leads Alison Grimes by four points (50-46) and in the latter freshly nominated David Perdue (R) leads Michelle Nunn (D) (50-44). Perdue comes out of the gate strong after his recent primary victory and seems well positioned against Nunn who has been an accomplished fund-raiser to this point. It is possible the Democrats could steal one of these seats but the combination of conservative voters and President Obama’s sagging popularity make such a scenario unlikely.

There are a couple states that lack an incumbent and where the GOP candidate has run surprisingly strong: Iowa and Michigan. Joni Ernst leads Bruce Braley in the Hawkeye state (48-47) after a series of verbal flubs by the Democratic Congressman. In the Wolverine state Congressman Gary Peters trails Teri Lynn Land by a point (48-47). Though the two female GOP candidates lead by a narrow margin in both polls, the Democratic lean of both states makes the climb to victory more difficult for these two women. That said, both states are definitely in-play and provide solid evidence of how the GOP has expanded the field of contested seats held by Democrats.

We also ought to consider Colorado a competitive race where Democrat incumbent Mark Udall leads Congressman Cory Gardner (51-47). That is too narrow a lead for an incumbent to feel safe with less than a hundred days until the election, though he is better positioned than his colleagues in the South.

So where does that leave the two parties as we head into the final three months before Election Day? They remain in an intensely competitive race for control of the Senate. Watch where each party spends its resources over the next month to get a sense of where each believes it has the best chance of winning.

If I were advising the two parties I would urge Democrats to cut bait in Montana, Arkansas, and Louisiana and focus on winning Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina, and Alaska. I would counsel Republicans to avoid wasting cash in long-shot races in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Oregon and focus on the elite eight: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, and North Carolina.

At this time I would place the odds of a GOP Senate takeover at 65% with a likely pick-up of between 7-8 seats. But much campaigning remains and with it plenty of time for more gaffes – and those can quickly transform a race or two.