Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Slough of Despond

Deliver me from your cold phlegmatic preachers, politicians, friends, lovers and husbands.
— Abigail Adams, Letter to John Adams

Alabama is back with us. Its arrival preceded by just one day the news that thanks to Donald Trump’s sophistication, he had probably paid no taxes for many years. As Rudolph Giuliani explained it, “The man’s a genius. He knows how to operate the tax code for the people that he’s serving.” The people he is serving do not include the people who were serving Mr. Trump as workers in his construction projects whom he repeatedly stiffed by not paying them what they were owed, and who, thanks to Mr. Trump’s clever use of the bankruptcy laws, were left holding an empty bag of compensation while Mr. Trump was left holding a bag full of tax benefits. But never mind all that. Let’s go back to Alabama where it’s two for three and that’s just as exciting as what’s happening in the presidential campaign.

Readers who follow events in Alabama will recall that all three of what might be called its “top dogs,” were in hot water because of their conduct as elected officials. Two of them have now been happily dispatched (although one of them intends to appeal) and the third is in a holding pattern as lawyers quibble over how to proceed. Of the three, perhaps the most interesting is Roy Moore, the now-suspended Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Moore is the most interesting because he is probably the only Chief Justice in Alabama who has been a repeat customer of the Alabama Court of the Judiciary. Each of his appearance before that body has resulted in his not being permitted to continue to serve as Chief Justice although the manner in which that result was achieved differed in the two cases. When he became the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court the first time, Chief Justice Moore caused a 5,280-pound granite monument to the Ten Commandments to be installed in the central rotunda of the state judicial building. When the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered him to have it removed, he refused. As a result, instead of the monument being removed from the rotunda, Justice Moore was removed from the bench by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary.

In 2012 Mr. Moore was re-elected as Chief Justice and, in 2016, the Court of the Judiciary suspended him. On this occasion he was suspended for ordering lower court judges in Alabama to ignore federal court rulings permitting same-sex marriages, and for instructing probate judges to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. Using the sort of nicety that only lawyers can appreciate, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary did not remove Justice Moore from office following his second appearance since removal required a unanimous vote of the members of the Court and the members of the Court were not unanimous in voting for his removal. Instead, it suspended him without pay until his term ends in 2019. (Alabamans needn’t fear another resurrection of the Chief. In 2019 he will be too old to run again.)

Meanwhile, back at the trial court level in Alabama, we have the conviction of the former Alabama House Speaker, Mike Hubbard. He, it will be recalled, was first elected to the House in Alabama in 2010, vowing to clean up the state legislature. In a book he wrote following his election, he said: “Ethics was a subject that set Republicans apart from the Democrats.” That assertion was made because of pre-election scandals and indictments involving Democrats. Mr. Hubbard is no longer the Speaker of the Alabama House. In a good news-bad news kind of way, in June 2016 he was convicted of only 12 counts of corruption instead of the 23 counts with which he had been charged. He was sentenced to four years in prison and given $210,000 in fines. He will, of course, appeal. That leaves us, as we consider Alabama, with Governor Robert Bentley. He is in the midst of a process that may result in impeachment proceedings. His offenses involve the kind of conduct that has suddenly become one of the hot issues of the presidential campaign-infidelity.

In the presidential campaign, the question Mr. Trump has repeatedly suggested voters should consider, in comparing himself and Hillary Clinton, is whether it is a greater offense to (a) engage in sexual misconduct with someone other than a spouse while married or (b) be a spouse who is cheated on. Since Mr. Trump is critical of Secretary Clinton’s response to the infidelity of her husband, it would be helpful to learn of the responses of Mr. Trump’s betrayed spouses to his acts of infidelity. That would be helpful to know since, as in all things Trumpian, one can be confident that the responses of his former spouses to his repeated acts of infidelity represent the gold standard in dealing with unfaithful spouses. But I digress.

In Alabama, the House Judiciary Committee is conducting an investigation to determine whether impeachment proceedings against the governor are warranted because the governor has been accused of having an affair with a staffer BEFORE he was divorced. The outcome of the investigation will not be known until after the presidential election is past. However it comes out, Alabamans may, for good reason, feel that their state has fallen into the Slough of Despond. They are not alone. Thanks to the campaign for president, the entire country has joined them in the Slough.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

New Best Friends

Sticks and stones can break my bones
But words can never hurt me.
A child’s reply to a taunt

It was a truly heart-warming couple of days-the rapprochement of two former bitter rivals, one of whom, in a moment of amazing grace, buried the hatchet and the other, in a similarly generous gesture, assisted in the burial. It was reminiscent of the small boys who, having quarreled, are instructed by their mothers to kiss and make up to show that they are, in fact, best friends. Any small boy who has kissed another small boy after a quarrel can attest to the unpleasantness of the task even though mandated by well-meaning mothers. The mothers in this case are expediency and the little boys none other than Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. It was all brought to mind because of Mr. Cruz’s recent acknowledgement that he plans to vote for Mr. Trump. It cannot have been an easy decision, given some of the unkind things that Mr. Trump said about Mr. Cruz, his wife, and his father, during the primary season and it shows how truly magnanimous Mr. Cruz can be when magnanimity and self-interest demand it.

The animosity between Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump finds its genesis in their respective efforts to get their party’s nomination for president in 2016. In his effort to convince voters that he would be a better president than Mr. Cruz, Mr. Trump employed a number of creative tactics that had not theretofore been used in national elections. Comparing the beauty of candidates’ wives was one. Mr. Trump has had three beautiful wives whereas Mr. Cruz has had only one beautiful wife. That gives Mr. Trump a three to one advantage over Mr. Cruz and, as if to emphasize that advantage, Mr. Trump posted on the twitter account of which he is so fond, a picture of his beautiful wife and an unflattering picture of Mr. Cruz’s beautiful wife. Not content to rely on an unflattering photo of a beautiful woman in order to show how beautiful his own and current wife is, Mr. Trump also ominously said he would eventually spill the beans on Mr. Cruz’s wife. That was apparently an idle threat since there were no beans to be found. The foregoing is not meant to suggest that Mr. Trump was a one issue candidate. He also brought Mr. Cruz’s father into the picture.

A tabloid published a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald, President Kennedy’s assassin, distributing pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans. Mr. Oswald was accompanied by another man that the tabloid said was Mr. Cruz’s father, an assertion that was denied by Mr. Cruz and never proved. Not deterred by the fact that there was no evidence that the unidentified man was Mr. Cruz’s father, Mr. Trump pretended it was and said it was “horrible” that he’d been with the assassin two days before the assassin killed the president. After Mr. Trump had accepted the nomination at the Republican National Convention, he again repeated the assertion about Mr. Cruz’s father, apparently miffed that Mr. Cruz had not endorsed Mr. Trump in his convention speech.

Mr. Cruz was, as most decent people were, upset by Mr. Trump’s comments. The day after Mr. Trump’s comments about his father, Mr. Cruz explained why he had not honored his pledge to endorse the eventual nominee of the Republican party saying: “[T]hat pledge was not a blanket commitment that if you go and slander and attack Heidi, that I’m going to nonetheless come like a servile puppy dog and say thank you very much for maligning my wife and maligning my father,” Everyone who has a wife and/or a father applauded Mr. Cruz for his strong defense of family. Mr. Trump was not the least bit upset by Mr. Cruz’s decision not to endorse him saying: “If he gives it, I will not accept it.”

On September 23, Mr. Cruz became, as he had earlier described what he would be were he to endorse Mr. Trump, a servile puppy dog. He attributed his puppy dog like servility to his earlier pledge to support the Republican nominee, irrespective of who that might be, the pledge he had described two months earlier as “abrogated.”

Readers will be forgiven if they assume that Mr. Cruz’s endorsement of Mr. Trump would be ignored by Mr. Trump who had said, after the Republican convention, that he would not accept the endorsement even if offered. Instead of acting on his earlier announced intention to decline an endorsement from Mr. Cruz whom he had persistently addressed as “Lyin’ Ted” during the primary season, Mr. Trump accepted the endorsement saying: “We have fought the battle, and he was a tough and brilliant opponent. I look forward to working with him for many years to come in order to make America great again.”

It was almost certainly a distasteful kiss for both men. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Trump and Stumpf

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost; Evil, be thou my good.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

Wells Fargo is a metaphor for the Donald Trump campaign. The difference is that it is easier to effect a claw back in the Wells Fargo case than in the case of Donald Trump. In the Wells Fargo case, the need for a claw back is a disappointment. In the case of Donald Trump, it will be a disaster.

Wells Fargo was more happily in the news in June 2015, when it was announced that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was taking all its accounts away from the bank because the bank was running ads featuring same sex couples who use the services of Wells Fargo. Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, urged his followers to boycott the bank saying they “should speak out as Christians” in protest of the bank’s advertising practices. The bank was unmoved. That was the Wells Fargo that showed how a bank could take a stand on matters of principle irrespective of its effect on business. Its Donald Trump moment is more distressing.

September 2016 brought news that Wells Fargo employees had been pressured by their superiors to open unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts for existing customers. The more accounts they opened, the greater their bonuses. The fact that the customers neither requested nor knew of the benefits that bonus hungry employees were bestowing on them was of no consequence. The important thing was to open the accounts. Employees were expected to open three to four new accounts each day and the easiest way to do that was to open accounts for customers who already had accounts since the employees had all the information about the customers that they needed in order to open the accounts. September 8 it was disclosed that the bank was paying $185 million in fines and penalties because of that practice. There may have been more than 2 million deposit and credit card accounts created without the knowledge of the beneficiaries of the practice.

The director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said that the fine is the largest fine ever imposed by the Bureau. The bank has thus far fired 5,300 low level employees for engaging in the practice and more firings of low level employees may be in the offing. No senior employees have been punished. John Stumpf is CEO. The only adverse effect he has suffered as a result of the malfeasance of his bank, is being grilled by members of the Senate Finance Committee. Another person who suffered no adverse consequences as a result of the activity is Carrie Tolstedt.

Ms. Tolstedt is the divisional senior vice president for community banking and it was she who supervised the 6,000 branch banks where the fictitious accounts were being created. Although Mr. Stumpf knew about the fictitious accounts created under the watchful eye of Ms. Tolstedt, he described her as a “role model for responsible leadership” and “a standard-bearer of our culture.” She may be all those things and the proof would be found in the retirement package she will receive when she retires at the end of the year. In addition to $23 million in compensation that was paid to her during the last three years of her employment, she will leave with benefits that could be worth as much as $125 million. According to Bloomberg News, however, the company might be able to claw back $17 million in unvested shares owned by Carrie if the board of directors believes that to be appropriate. And therein the difference between Wells Fargo and Donald Trump.

Just as Wells Fargo employees were earning money by creating fictitious accounts for customers, Mr. Trump is gathering votes by creating a fictitious narrative about the world, the country in which we live, and the qualities of his opponent. His campaign is built on lies he is able to tell with a straight face and not the least bit of embarrassment when caught out. He has lied for so much of his life, that he himself may often not recall what truth is. His lies range from the birthplace of President Obama, his supposed opposition to the Iraq war from its inception, and his assertion that there are 30 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. For the week beginning September 9, a website that is fact checking Trump’s statements found 38 lies and described the week as being perhaps “Donald Trump’s greatest week of lies yet.”

Here is the difference between Wells Fargo’s victims and the American people. Wells will hold defrauded customers harmless and its board of directors can decide to claw back some of the compensation paid to Mr. Stumpf, Ms. Tolstedt and other high level employees who should have stopped the practice. It could even decide to fire responsible executives. Should Donald Trump win the presidency as a result of his fraudulent campaign, there is no way the American people will be held harmless. If they suffer voters’ remorse, they will be unable to claw back their votes. They will have to wait four years to fire him. That’s too bad.

For links see this column at Huffington Post