Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Who is Richard P. Lawless?

A) Former CIA operations officer (circa 1974-85) with expertise in nuclear issues and Asia. After leaving the CIA, was widely accused of trying to buy the freedom of an American hostage in Beirut, Lebanon on behalf of then-vice-president George Bush, shortly before the 1988 presidential election. (see Robin Wright, LA Times, October 19, 1988, et.al.)

B) International businessman, consultant, and real estate developer. After leaving CIA became a major GOP contributor, particularly to the Bush family. Helped Jeb Bush make a substantial part of his personal fortune by cutting him in for sweetheart consulting fees on foreign purchases of South Florida real estate on which he did little work.

C) Chairman and Founder, US-Asia Commercial Development Corporation. Pro-China-engagement, Bush family associate, soon to be appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia, i.e., head of Asia policy at the Pentagon.

D) All of the Above.

More soon …

I don't normally have a soft spot in my heart for repeat-offending corrupt politicians or instances of recidivist venality. Or at least I try not to make a habit of it. But to every rule there's an exception and this one brings me to look with an admittedly bizarre regret on the recent corruption conviction of Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci.

I'm not from Rhode Island and I don't live there now. But I spent the better part of my twenties living in the Providence -- specifically, from the end of 1992 till the beginning of 1997. And for a couple years I even lived a couple blocks from the Mayor's 'Mansion' down on Benefit Street. So I lived there long enough to get a feel for the place.

I didn't follow the case against Cianci at all or how good a case the Feds made against him. But frankly it hardly matters. It doesn't take too much effort to imagine what the bill of particulars likely was.

But the hilarious, bizarre and probably -- to anyone who hasn't lived there -- inscrutable truth is that Cianci was just an incredibly good Mayor. Not just for the entertainment factor but equally in terms of rejuvenating the city. Yes, yes, yes ... he had some previous run-ins with the law, no doubt over some troubling decisions about public contracts and okay, okay there was that incident in which, while serving as Mayor, he and a few of his goons kidnapped the lover of his estranged wife and knocked him on the head with a firewood log and did some unfortunate things to him with electrodes. But, really, didn't that just show that he felt things deeply?

Of course, later there were various public dramas like when Cianci's buxom peroxide blonde girlfriend jilted him, hightailed it to some island in the Caribbean with her new man, and left Buddy in a sorrowful funk which lasted, if I recall, for some time and left the residents of the three-hundred-and-fifty year old city worried about him for some time.

As you can no doubt see, some of this is tongue-in-cheek. But not all of it. Cianci was a great Mayor. Or at least a terribly fun one who did a lot of good things for the city. Certainly everyone in the city loved him. And he was disproportionately responsible for the renaissance Providence experienced in the 1990s. When I lived there he ran for re-election essentially unopposed.

Cianci was first elected Mayor as a Republican in 1975. He resigned in 1984 after pleading no-contest to charges stemming from the the wife's boyfriend incident. Then he took a turn at Talk Radio before staging a political comeback in, I think, 1990. He's been Mayor ever since. Later in his mayoralty he ran as an Independent, but in effect -- in terms of the coalitions which elected him -- as a Democrat.

There's really no way to explain to an outsider the sort of popularity Cianci enjoyed. (To say that he was a cartoonish or parodic figure is rather an understatement. I think the best I can do to describe him is as a mix with equal parts Ed Koch, Vito Corleone and Boss Hogg.) But much of it is rooted in the idiosyncratic and bizarre political culture of Rhode Island which somehow manages to compress all the cliches of the history of American urban machine politics into one medium-sized city in one miniscule state. To say that Rhode Island is corrupt is rather like saying that Washington, DC is political. But the state's politics is generally divided between mainly venal and predominantly ethnic machine-type pols like Cianci on the one hand and insufferable good-government blue-bloods on the other. And the state's electorate more often than not chooses the former.

Why did high-rolling CEOs and CFOs and in-house accountants fraudulently inflate profits? Single-minded focus on market capitalization? Weak regulatory oversight? Poor business ethics? No, it was Bill Clinton and all that unfortunate business with Monica Lewinsky. Apparently the former president just led Ebbers and Lay and their minions down the primrose path.

Steve Forbes tried this pre-fab spin on for size on Moneyline tonight:

Well, I think if you want to look at the tone of the '90s, it started right at the top, at the White House, where the attitude was anything goes. If you get caught, spin your way out of it. The only thing they didn't resist -- they could resist everything except temptation. So it started at the top.
Then a short time later the GOP operative Ed Rogers did the same on Crossfire.
That didn't start when Bush was elected or when Bush was sworn in. It started during the Clinton bubble years, where we were all taught from the top down the truth is relative.
Who knew corporate America was so impressionable? And took their lead from Bill Clinton?

In this life one must take the good with the bad. In the case of the DC Metropolitan police that means accepting the downside evidence of manifest incompetence with the boon of great comedic potential.

So for instance earlier this week we heard that Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey had lowered the department's goal for how many homicides it would solve this year to 50.9 percent -- thus turning our nation's capital into a sort of murder empowerment zone, no doubt on the basis of some misunderstanding of a new policy initiative from Kempite Republicans or perhaps DLC Dems.

On the other hand, buried deep in the recesses of the Metro section of today's Post, we find that it has fallen to the U.S. Park Police to help the cops investigate whether the DC police who kept a 24 hour a day guard on the Chandra Levy crime scene for the last few weeks were also responsible for vandalizing the crime scene and carving faces into several nearby (and presumably utterly blameless) trees.

Talking Points Memo lacks the resources to break big stories like the ridiculous collapse of WorldCom. But here's an interesting morsel.

Edison Schools is a rather small company as publicly-traded companies go -- actually getting smaller every day, if you go by market capitalization. But if the company is relatively small in size it's extremely politically wired. Edison, you see, is in the rather innovative business of running -- or trying to run -- public schools on a for-profit basis. They also dabble in the charter school game. So as you can imagine the company's work is highly politicized.

The Board also has some marquee names on it: Benno Schmidt, the former president of Yale, Floyd Flake, pastor, former congressman, all-around charter school maven, and even Bill Weld, who served as Governor of Massachusetts, before fate decreed that that post would be held only by sad-sacks. Schmidt is the Chairman of the Board and Flake is President of Edison Charter Schools.

But I digress.

Edison is the brainchild of Chris Whittle, the current President and CEO of the company. According to the company's September 2001 proxy statement, the company lent Whittle $6.6 million on November 15, 1999 and $1.2 million on April 13, 2000 to exercise options to purchase stock in the company. In other words, the company was loaning him money to purchase stock in itself -- not an uncommon practice. By September 30th, 2001 the combined principal and interest on those two loans totalled $9.2 million.

So far so good.

Now what's interesting is the collateral Whittle put up for these two loans. It turns out it was the shares themselves, the shares he was buying with the loans. As the proxy statement says "The loans are collateralized only by the shares ..."

Now the problem is, like the Chicago Bulls and ten year old beer, that stock ain't what it used to be. In fact, as you can see from this handy diagram, Edison's stock is now virtually worthless. A year ago shares in Edison went for about $23 a pop. Today the stock closed at 85 cents, its lowest close all year.

What all of this means of course is that there now isn't any collateral for those loans. That stock is now worth only a fraction of what it was back in the day. In the real world, Whittle would now be facing the dreaded margin call. The company would at least demand some other collateral to secure the loan.

But are they? That's not clear.

Remember, $10 million may not seem like a lot when WorldCom is tossing around billions. But as of today that's equal to about 20% of Edison's market capitalization. Given the company's wobbly state, I'd imagine the Board would have a pretty clear fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders to try to recoup that debt.

Today I chatted with a stock analyst who covers Edison and he told me that the company has been less than clear about what it has done or plans to do about this problem. When I called Edison's Chief Financial Officer Adam Field, one of his assistants told me that everyone at the company was busy today and that no one was available to answer the question. Tomorrow? She told me that everyone would probably be busy tomorrow as well.

It now seems so easy for corporations to falsify profit reports (and so unlikely that outside auditors will succeed or even try to catch such shenanigans) that it's time for the federal government to set up some sort of watchdog agency to make sure that publicly-traded companies don't cook their books or wildly over-extend themselves. Maybe they could call it like the securities commission or the securities and exchange commission? You know, a watchdog outfit that could give everyone confidence that this sort of funny business could never happen.

If you look below the fold in these articles about the Worldcom debacle, you'll see an interesting detail. Who was Worldcom's auditor? Right, Andersen. A month or so back they fired Andersen and brought in KPMG to scrutinize their books. And well, the rest is history.

Sorta like Worldcom.

Another interesting detail is that former CEO Bernard J. Ebbers who "abruptly resigned in April" according to the New York Times still owes WorldCom about $366 million which the company loaned him on sweetheartish terms back in the good old days.

This sort of thing is apparently quite common. In fact, TPM has uncovered a similar instance in another publicly traded company. This company is much smaller. But it's one that's been the toast of political Washington in recent years. We'll be reporting our findings later this week.

Let me expand on what I said yesterday about the Bush peace plan.

The problem with the plan is not that it's foolish or misguided, though I think it's both. The problem is that it's not a plan. It is simply an endorsement of the position of the Sharon government. What's dishonest is to present it as though it is in any way advancing the ball toward peace or a final settlement.

When Ariel Sharon came to power he said, in essence, that he just wasn't going to do business with Yasser Arafat. I don't agree with that position. But it's a perfectly reasonable position. Bush has now endorsed that position. Why not just call this what it is?

It's not unreasonable for the Sharon government or the Bush administration to say they won't do business with Yasser Arafat's government. It's simply a judgment. If for instance, the next Palestinian government were a Hamas government I think it would be sensible and reasonable to say, "I don't think the Palestinians should be under occupation. I think there should be a Palestinian state. But as long as the Palestinian government is run by Hamas, we won't agree to anything, period."

The question is whether the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are fundamentally the same thing.

Any government - let's call it government A -- has a perfect right to say it won't do business with government B and that it wants government B thrown out. But let's make sure we have the vocabulary right. There's a word for this state of relations: war.