Part of the Series
Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016
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Controversy erupted after the recent Democratic presidential debate when Hillary Clinton accused Bernie Sanders of criticizing President Obama. However, Sanders is hardly the only prominent Democrat to have recently questioned some of the president’s actions. In January, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) released a 12-page booklet titled “Rigged Justice,” which highlights 20 cases of lax corporate law enforcement in 2015, saying:
The Obama Administration has made repeated promises to strengthen enforcement and hold corporate criminals accountable, and the DOJ [US Department of Justice] announced in September that it would place greater emphasis on charging individuals responsible for corporate crimes. Nonetheless, both before and after this DOJ announcement, accountability for corporate crimes is shockingly weak.
Warren’s report covers a far-reaching cast of culprits, from Standard & Poor’s to General Motors. Taken with its timing and the competitive state of the Democratic Party primary, Warren’s report, and The New York Times op-ed she wrote about the report, read like a subtle endorsement of Sanders – or at least a primer on what the hypothetical Warren-Clinton Democratic Party primary election that so many progressives clamored for in early 2015 would have been like.
“Legislative agendas matter, but voters should also ask which presidential candidates they trust with the extraordinary power to choose who will fight on the front lines to enforce the laws,” Warren wrote in the Times, claiming that the Obama administration fell short of meaningful prosecution of major misconduct by corporations and people running them.
In an interview with International Business Times to publicize the report, Warren said, “In the financial crisis of 2008, it was fraud right down at the heart of that crisis, and yet not one major bank executive was even charged, much less prosecuted and taken to trial – not one.” Despite assurances by the Department of Justice that it will improve enforcement, Warren’s report suggests that corporate criminals have “free rein to operate outside the law” because the accountability is just not there. The report is resonant with Warren’s praise of Sanders’ attacks on Wall Street and the “rigging” of the system.
The relationships between Hillary Clinton and certain wrongdoers named within Warren’s report accent the increasingly common perception that the Clinton candidacy is particularly sensitive to the interests of bankers and corporations. For example, UBS, one of five banks that in 2015 paid a combined $5 billion in settlements with the Department of Justice, pled guilty to wire fraud charges in connection with interest rate manipulation. The sentencing lacked prosecution of individuals behind these directives, making UBS’s punishment more symbolic than anything, according to “Rigged Justice.”
As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015, UBS’s donations to the Clinton Foundation – the Clintons’ philanthropic organization – as well as the bank’s requests for paid speeches by former President Bill Clinton, grew rapidly after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped the Swiss bank settle a lawsuit with the Internal Revenue Service. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic wrote of former President Clinton’s $1.5 million in speaking fees from UBS: “If you’re Bill Clinton and your wife has recently intervened, in her capacity as a cabinet secretary, to help a giant corporation avert a significant threat to its bottom-line, the very least you could do, if only to avoid the appearance of impropriety, is to avoid negotiating seven-figure paydays with that same corporation.”
Goldman Sachs is also included in the Warren report. Sanders specifically targeted the company in the lead-up to elections in Iowa and New Hampshire for the $675,000 the bank paid Hillary Clinton for speeches after she left the US State Department. (Other entities named in the report that have paid Clinton for speeches include Deutsche Bank and UBS.) Goldman Sachs, a Wall Street giant and one of the financial firms in the middle of what Warren calls the “fraud at the heart” of the 2008 economic downturn, owns 41 percent of the second-largest for-profit education company in the country, the Education Management Corporation (EDMC).
As Warren notes in “Rigged Justice,” in November 2015, EDMC settled with the Department of Justice on charges that it illegally paid recruiters based on the number of students they enrolled. The financial hit taken by EDMC as a result of the settlement was less than 1 percent of the payments it received from these students – 90 percent of which was done with federal grants and loans. The illegal behavior, some reports say, dates back to when Goldman Sachs first took over EDMC. A 2011 Huffington Post investigative report says:
Management handed down revamped telemarketing scripts designed to prey on poor and uneducated consumers, honing in on their past mistakes in life as a ploy to convince them that college would solve all their problems, according to conversations with more than a dozen current and former Education Management Corp. employees over the past two months.
As Sanders repeatedly brought Clinton to task over her paid speeches for Goldman Sachs before Iowa and New Hampshire, Goldman Sachs head Lloyd Blankfein gave Sanders an unintended boost in regards to progressive credentials when he told CNBC on February 1 that the senator’s rhetoric had “the potential to be a dangerous moment” – not just for Wall Street but also “for anybody who is a little bit out of line.”
Warren came to Sanders’ defense, providing the senator with what might be the most meaningful show of support for his tough talk on Wall Street since the start of the Democratic Party primary: “[Blankfein] thinks it’s fine to prosecute small business owners, it’s fine to go hard after individuals who have no real resources, but don’t criticize companies like Goldman Sachs and their very, very important CEO – that’s what he’s really saying.”
At the party-sanctioned debate held just before the New Hampshire primary on February 4, Clinton attempted to push back against Sanders’ accusations that she would be influenced by any speaking fee payments, saying, “You will not find that I ever changed a view or vote because of any donation that I ever received, and I have stood up and represented my constituents to the best of my ability and I am very proud of that.”
Warren has some notable insights based on personal experience about Clinton’s relation to her constituents. In a 2004 appearance on PBS’s “NOW,” Warren told Bill Moyers that she played a crucial role in Clinton’s opposition to recurring legislation in the 1990s that would have made it harder for ordinary families to declare bankruptcy. Warren said the dynamics changed once Clinton ran for a Senate seat in New York in 1999: “As Senator Clinton, the pressures are very different. It’s a well-financed industry. A lot of people don’t realize that the industry that gave the most money to Washington over the past few years was not the oil industry, was not pharmaceuticals; it was consumer credit products. Those are the people. The credit card companies have been giving money and they have influence.”
“And Ms. Clinton was one of them, as senator?” Moyers asked Warren, who at that time was a Harvard professor who was quickly gaining a reputation as an intellectual watchdog over Wall Street.
“She has taken money from the groups, and more to the point, she worries about them as a constituency,” Warren responded.
When ABC’s “This Week” played this clip to Clinton on February 7, she responded by pivoting into an attack on what she calls Sanders’ “innuendos” about herself and Wall Street, adding that she dropped her support of the bankruptcy bill because she was “deluged by women’s groups and children’s groups” talking about its failure to protect single mothers. But as The Daily Caller points out, this is easily refuted by another Warren source, her 2003 book The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke.
Regardless of the outcome of the 2016 election, Warren’s report, the first in what is promised to be an annual series on corporate law enforcement, underscores the notion that beyond policy and legislation proposals, enforcement of current law by the president is important to public well-being. With Warren unafraid to call the Obama administration’s oversight on corporate crime “shockingly weak,” his successor will undoubtedly get as much scrutiny.
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