Monday, February 23, 2009

Secret TARP Bailout Details To Be Released By Court Order

It appears that we finally (hopefully) will be able to see where our tax dollars are going, thanks to a recent court ruling. This court order will force the Treasury to release some of the information that they have been concealing from the American public in regards to the massive bailout of the country's financial system. Anthony Freed provides us with more information on this development in his blog post below:

Advocates of an open Government and transparent allocation of taxpayer funds celebrated the news late Friday afternoon (2-20-09) that the U.S. District court has moved to enforce a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to release more details about exactly how TARP bailout funds have been and are being used.

The TARP was passed in early October, 2008, in an effort to stem the damage to the nation’s financial industry incurred during a decade of lax risk-abatement that pervaded the banking culture after the legislative emasculation of the Glass-Steagall Act.

FOX Business sued Treasury on Dec. 18 over failure to provide information on the bailout funds or respond to FBN’s expedited requests filed under the FOIA. The initial request, filed on Nov. 25, sought actual data on the use of the bailout funds for American International Group (AIG) and the Bank of New York Mellon (BK), and an additional request, filed on Dec. 1, sought similar data on the bailout funds for Citigroup (C).

FBN asked the Treasury Department to identify, among other issues, the troubled assets purchased, any collateral extended, and any restrictions placed on these financial institutions for their participation in this program.

The Treasury Department - along with the other banking regulators like the FDIC, OTS, and the Federal Reserve - are notoriously secretive concerning the data they collect and their subsequent analysis of the viability of any particular institution, preferring to operate instead behind closed doors.

This tendency often leaves investors in the dark, which generally tends to work in the banks’ favor. Regulators would argue that they are not in the business of moving markets, and that some data may be misinterpreted and inadvertently cause a run on funds at named institutions, evidenced by Schumer’s now infamous disclosure of details that may have led to the collapse of Indy Mac Bank in 2008.

That argument may have held some water until the TARP bailout effectively made the U.S. taxpayer a shareholder in any number of as yet identified institutions, and the owner of any assortment of exotic financial instruments which have proved toxic to Global capital markets.

Judge Richard J. Holwell of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York said in a decision Friday that the government is directed to comply with FOX Business’s request under the FOIA “within 30 days and to produce a Vaughn index with 45 days.” That means Treasury must comply with FOX Business’s request by Monday, March 23, and must produce a Vaughn index by Monday, April 6.

The Treasury will have the chance to withhold some documents and information they deem too sensitive, but now have to provide an itemized “Vaughn index” of which documents and information have been redacted, and for exactly what reason.

“A Vaughn Index must: (1) identify each document withheld; (2) state the statutory exemption claimed; and (3) explain how disclosure would damage the interests protected by the claimed exemption.”

This may open the door to further FOIA challenges to release the remaining information if the Treasury fails to convince the courts that their vetting of information was reasonable.

I don’t think Treasury has realized that they are not the only ones who have new powers and responsibilities in the implementation of this historic bailout - the courts have yet to weigh-in on much of this, including who is ultimately going to be held responsible for the mess that is the economy, even if it is still taxpayers who have to foot the bill to clean it all up.

My guess is that the courts feel very differently about full disclosure than does the insider Wall Street elite who regulate themselves from Washington D.C. in seeming perpetuity.

Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote a good op-ed piece called What We Don’t Know Will Hurt Us, which helps further the argument that it is time to get to bottom of exactly what is going on with our economy, and why their seems to be so little consequence for the perpetrators of so much devastation.

Americans are right to wonder why there has been scant punishment for the management and boards of bailed-out banks that recklessly sliced and diced all this debt into worthless gambling chips. They are also right to wonder why there is still little transparency in how TARP funds have been spent by these teetering institutions. If a CNBC commentator can stir up a populist dust storm by ranting that Obama’s new mortgage program (priced at $75 billion to $275 billion) is “promoting bad behavior,” imagine the tornado that would greet an even bigger bank bailout on top of the $700 billion already down the TARP drain.

Remember, the fundamental point of the TARP bailout is to funnel incredible amounts of taxpayer money - debt, actually - to the very institutions and people who are responsible for driving the markets off the cliff in the first place.

And they got paid handsomely for doing it.

It is time for our nation’s financial machine to drop the self-righteous arrogance they have cloaked themselves in for too long, for all of those paper-pushing money lords to release their false sense of entitlement, relinquish their ill-gotten wealth from the last 10 years, and to return to their proper place in the economic landscape as facilitators of capital creation, not the creators of capital.

Accountability in the largest disbursement of public funds in history is not only a good idea, it is essential to our democracy, as is ending the revolving door between corporate boardrooms and the regulatory offices of our government.

The Fox Business FOIA request and the court’s decision to release more information should serve as a warning to the Wall Street good ol’ boys that their orgy of omnipotence is truly over, and that the era of accountability is in.

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