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Looting Main Street

Page 5 of 6

With Goldman out of the way, JP Morgan won the right to do a $1.1 billion bond offering — switching Jefferson County out of fixed-rate debt into variable-rate debt — and also did a corresponding $1.1 billion deal for a synthetic rate swap. The very same day the transaction was concluded, in May 2003, LeCroy had dinner with Langford and struck a deal to do yet another bond-and-swap transaction of roughly the same size. This time, the terms of the payoff were spelled out more explicitly. In a hilarious phone call between LeCroy and Douglas MacFaddin, another JP Morgan official, the two bankers groaned aloud about how much it was going to cost to satisfy Blount:

LeCroy: I said, "Commissioner Langford, I'll do that because that's your suggestion, but you gotta help us keep him under control. Because when you give that guy a hand, he takes your arm." You know?

MacFaddin: [Laughing] Yeah, you end up in the wood-chipper.

 

All told, JP Morgan ended up paying Blount nearly $3 million for "performing no known services," in the words of the SEC. In at least one of the deals, Blount made upward of 15 percent of JP Morgan's entire fee. When I ask Taylor what a legitimate consultant might earn in such a circumstance, he laughs. "What's a 'legitimate consultant' in a case like this? He made this money for doing jack shit."

As the tapes of LeCroy's calls show, even officials at JP Morgan were incredulous at the money being funneled to Blount. "How does he get 15 percent?" one associate at the bank asks LeCroy. "For doing what? For not messing with us?"

"Not messing with us," LeCroy agrees. "It's a lot of money, but in the end, it's worth it on a billion-dollar deal."

That's putting it mildly: The deals wound up being the largest swap agreements in JP Morgan's history. Making matters worse, the payoffs didn't even wind up costing the bank a dime. As the SEC explained in a statement on the scam, JP Morgan "passed on the cost of the unlawful payments by charging the county higher interest rates on the swap transactions." In other words, not only did the bank bribe local politicians to take the sucky deal, they got local taxpayers to pay for the bribes. And because Jefferson County had no idea what kind of deal it was getting on the swaps, JP Morgan could basically charge whatever it wanted. According to an analysis of the swap deals commissioned by the county in 2007, taxpayers had been overcharged at least $93 million on the transactions.

JP Morgan was far from alone in the scam: Virtually everyone doing business in Jefferson County was on the take. Four of the nation's top investment banks, the very cream of American finance, were involved in one way or another with payoffs to Blount in their scramble to do business with the county. In addition to JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns paid Langford's bagman $2.4 million, while Lehman Brothers got off cheap with a $35,000 "arranger's fee." At least a dozen of the county's contractors were also cashing in, along with many of the county commissioners. "If you go into the county courthouse," says Michael Morrison, a planner who works for the county, "there's a gallery of past commissioners on the wall. On the top row, every single one of 'em but two has been investigated, indicted or convicted. It's a joke."

The crazy thing is that such arrangements — where some local scoundrel gets a massive fee for doing nothing but greasing the wheels with elected officials — have been taking place all over the country. In Illinois, during the Upper Volta-esque era of Rod Blagojevich, a Republican political consultant named Robert Kjellander got 10 percent of the entire fee Bear Stearns earned doing a bond sale for the state pension fund. At the start of Obama's term, Bill Richardson's Cabinet appointment was derailed for a similar scheme when he was governor of New Mexico. Indeed, one reason that officials in Jefferson County didn't know that the swaps they were signing off on were shitty was because their adviser on the deals was a firm called CDR Financial Products, which is now accused of conspiring to overcharge dozens of cities in swap transactions. According to a federal antitrust lawsuit, CDR is basically a big-league version of Bill Blount — banks tossed money at the firm, which in turn advised local politicians that they were getting a good deal. "It was basically, you pay CDR, and CDR helps push the deal through," says Taylor.

In the end, though, all this bribery and graft was just the table-setter for the real disaster. In taking all those bribes and signing on to all those swaps, the commissioners in Jefferson County had ­basically started the clock on a financial time bomb that, sooner or later, had to explode. By continually refinancing to keep the county in its giant McMansion, the commission had managed to push into the future that inevitable day when the real bill would arrive in the mail. But that's where the mortgage analogy ends — because in one key area, a swap deal differs from a home mortgage. Imagine a mortgage that you have to keep on paying even after you sell your house. That's basically how a swap deal works. And Jefferson County had done 23 of them. At one point, they had more outstanding swaps than New York City.

Judgment Day was coming — just like it was for the Delaware River Port Authority, the Pennsylvania school system, the cities of Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and Los Angeles, the states of Connecticut and Mississippi, the city of Milan and nearly 500 other municipalities in Italy, the country of Greece, and God knows who else. All of these places are now reeling under the weight of similarly elaborate and ill-advised swaps — and if what happened in Jefferson County is any guide, hoo boy. Because when the shit hit the fan in Birmingham, it really hit the fan.

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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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