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Looting Main Street

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And once the giant shit machine was built and the note on all that fancy construction started to come due, Wall Street came back to the local politicians and doubled down on the scam. They showed up in droves to help the poor, broke citizens of Jefferson County cut their toilet finance charges using a blizzard of incomprehensible swaps and refinance schemes — schemes that only served to postpone the repayment date a year or two while sinking the county deeper into debt. In the end, every time Jefferson County so much as breathed near one of the banks, it got charged millions in fees. There was so much money to be made bilking these dizzy Southerners that banks like JP Morgan spent millions paying middlemen who bribed — yes, that's right, bribed, criminally bribed — the county commissioners and their buddies just to keep their business. Hell, the money was so good, JP Morgan at one point even paid Goldman Sachs $3 million just to back the fuck off, so they could have the rubes of Jefferson County to fleece all for themselves.

Birmingham became the poster child for a new kind of giant-scale financial fraud, one that would threaten the financial stability not only of cities and counties all across America, but even those of entire countries like Greece. While for many Americans the financial crisis remains an abstraction, a confusing mess of complex transactions that took place on a cloud high above Manhattan sometime in the mid-2000s, in Jefferson County you can actually see the rank criminality of the crisis economy with your own eyes; the monster sticks his head all the way out of the water. Here you can see a trail that leads directly from a billion-dollar predatory swap deal cooked up at the highest levels of America's biggest banks, across a vast fruited plain of bribes and felonies — "the price of doing business," as one JP Morgan banker says on tape — all the way down to Lisa Pack's sewer bill and the mass layoffs in Birmingham.

Once you follow that trail and understand what took place in Jefferson County, there's really no room left for illusions. We live in a gangster state, and our days of laughing at other countries are over. It's our turn to get laughed at. In Birmingham, lots of people have gone to jail for the crime: More than 20 local officials and businessmen have been convicted of corruption in federal court. Last October, right around the time that Lisa Pack went back to work at reduced hours, Birmingham's mayor was convicted of fraud and money-laundering for taking bribes funneled to him by Wall Street bankers — everything from Rolex watches to Ferragamo suits to cash. But those who greenlighted the bribes and profited most from the scam remain largely untouched. "It never gets back to JP Morgan," says Pack.

If you want to get all Glenn Beck about it, you could lay the blame for this entire mess at the feet of weepy, tree-hugging environmentalists. It all started with the Cahaba River, the longest free-flowing river in the state of Alabama. The tributary, which winds its way through Birmingham before turning diagonally to empty out near Selma, is home to more types of fish per mile than any other river in America and shelters 64 rare and imperiled species of plants and animals. It's also the source of one of the worst municipal financial disasters in American history.

Back in the early 1990s, the county's sewer system was so antiquated that it was leaking raw sewage directly into the Cahaba, which also supplies the area with its drinking water. Joined by well — intentioned citizens from the Cahaba River Society, the EPA sued the county to force it to comply with the Clean Water Act. In 1996, county commissioners signed a now-infamous consent decree agreeing not just to fix the leaky pipes but to eliminate all sewer overflows — a near-impossible standard that required the county to build the most elaborate, ecofriendly, expensive sewer system in the history of the universe. It was like ordering a small town in Florida that gets a snowstorm once every five years to build a billion-dollar fleet of snowplows.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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