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Weekly Audit: Why accountability matters

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by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger

With workers all over the globe trudging through a catastrophic recession, it's almost a given that governments will be battling the economic slide for a long time. Part of the effort to rebuild must involve new rules and regulations, but meaningful systems for economic accountability will be just as essential. If we do not hold the reckless executives who caused this crisis accountable for their actions, we risk regressing into similar turmoil in the near future.

We all know that times are tough, and almost all of us agree on the cause: A massive Wall Street risk-binge combined with an almost total failure of regulatory oversight. It's surprising that few meaningful criminal charges have been filed amid what may very well be the worst financial crisis in history. Bernie Madoff will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars, but the subprime mortgage brokers who specialized in predatory loans–and the Wall Street banks that bought them–have yet to face consequences in court.

In The American Prospect, Tim Fernholz details the efforts of some state-level officials to investigate and punish white-collar crime at the nation's largest financial firms. Much of the problem, Fernholz explains, results from an insane legal landscape at the federal level. Active deregulation of the financial sector, which began in the 1980s, is shielding the irresponsible risk-taking that caused the current crisis from legal penalties.

Despite these obstacles, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and other key officials are going after some of the worst offenders, and have successfully taken action against some of the predatory profiteers, including subprime mortgage lender Fremont Investment & Loan and Wall Street icon Goldman Sachs. Coakley secured an injunction against Fremont to prevent the company from foreclosing on its borrowers, and Goldman agreed to modify $50 million in predatory mortgages.

But while Coakley's investigations may bring some much-needed relief to troubled homeowners, they're only part of the solution. If executives that approved their companies' subprime policies go through this crisis unscathed, it will be difficult to deter similar behavior in the future.

Fremont had to be sold off last year at fire-sale prices to avoid bankruptcy, but Goldman has weathered the economic downturn better than many of its Wall Street brethren. Much of the company's resiliency, however, stems from its ability to secure billions upon billions of dollars of bailout financing from the U.S. government. Over at AlterNet, Jim Hightower blasts Goldman for its multiple avenues of taxpayer support and emphasizes that only the notorious Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) comes with any strings attached whatsoever. While Congress attached some very modest restrictions on executive compensation to the TARP bailout, the FDIC and the Federal Reserve have provided big banks with trillions in loans and guarantees completely free of restrictions on how these perks are deployed.

Goldman received $10 billion under TARP, which the company hopes to repay soon to shrug off those CEO pay limits. When the government bailed out AIG, $12 billion of the funds were directed Goldman's way. But perhaps the greatest and lowest-profile outrage comes in the form of the FDIC's Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program. Hightower notes that the FDIC has guaranteed $28 billion of Goldman's recently issued corporate debt without imposing any restrictions on the Wall Street giant. In short, if Goldman were to default, the government would pay off its investors. This taxpayer guarantee has allowed Goldman and many of its banking peers to secure capital at exceptionally low rates, helping the firms survive during a time when any financing is hard to come by.

Even if Goldman is able to repay its TARP money, the company remains thoroughly dependent on taxpayer assistance. Once the TARP funds are paid off, Goldman will be free to pay its executives whatever it wants—even when that salary is subsidized by American tax dollars. That's a pretty perverse definition of accountability.

Of course, botched bailouts are not unique to the financial sector. As John Nichols explains in The Nation, the terms of automaker Chrysler's bankruptcy proceeding include plans to close down manufacturing plants across the Midwest, a strategy that undermines the entire economic justification for bailout: Sparing investors pain in order to save jobs.

"Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are being poured into Chrysler and General Motors, ostensibly to 'save' the U.S. auto industry," Nichols writes. "Yet, the companies have acknowledged that they plan to use the money to shutter factories, lay-off tens of thousands of factory workers and dramatically downsize dealership networks–at the cost of as many as 100,000 additional jobs."

Still worse, it appears that both Chrysler executives and officials from the Obama administration mislead Congress on the implications of the bankruptcy. Nichols cites a letter from Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, in which the lawmaker says Congress was told there would be no permanent job losses a result of the Chrysler bankruptcy filing. The very next day, plant closings were announced in Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

Even the economic stimulus package rewarded companies with a history of recklessness. In a piece for Salon, ProPublica journalists Michael Grabell and David Epstein reveal how contractors that have paid substantial fines for violating environmental regulations, federal safety rules and laws against racism have been able to score new business with the federal government. The worst offender? A contractor known as CACI International, which has been awarded three contracts worth $1.5 million under the stimulus package, despite ties to abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

CACI helped hire interrogators at Abu Ghraib, but an Army investigation found that the contractor ended up employing people with "little or no interrogator experience." Abuses committed by CACI employees included dragging a handcuffed prisoner on the ground, placing a prisoner in an "unauthorized stress position," dressing a prisoner in women's underwear and lying to investigators about using dogs in interrogations, according to Grabell and Epstein.

If the government relies on criminals to build the recovery, the public is not going to get the results it needs. But the recovery is only part of the solution to the current economic crisis. If we fail to prosecute executives whose active scheming and criminal negligence brought down the global economy, we are inviting more of the same behavior in the future.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy.

Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter.

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