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The Scam Wall Street Learned From the Mafia

Page 6 of 7

4. THE DEFENSE
There were times, sitting in the courtroom, when I wondered, How did this case even go to trial? What defense attorney would look at the thousands of recorded phone calls, the parade of cooperating witnesses, the stacks of falsified documents, and conclude that airing all of this in court was a smart play? Listening to tape after damning tape played in open court while the defendants cringed in a corner seemed increasingly like a gratuitous ass-kicking, one that any smart defense lawyer would have made a deal to avoid.

But as the weeks passed, I started to get a feel for the defense strategy, which made a kind of demented sense. The lawyers for Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm didn't even bother trying to argue the facts of the case. Instead, in one cross-examination after another, they kept hitting the same theme. Despite the fact that the rigged bids resulted in lower returns, wasn't it true that the cities and towns still received, technically speaking, the highest bid? If a town received a 5.00 percent return on a $219 million bond instead of 5.04 percent, who's to say that wasn't a good price?

John Siffert, the gray-faced and unlikable attorney for Steve Goldberg, put it this way in his cross-examination of CDR executive Stewart Wolmark. Asking about the Allegheny deal, he boomed: "Isn't it fair to say that you believed that by lowering... Steve's bid to 5 percent, Steve's bid was still a fair price to pay?"

Wolmark's answer was both quick and sensible: "I don't determine the fair price," he replied. "The market does." GE was supposed to pay the highest price the market would pay. It wasn't a competitive auction, as required by law.

But Siffert had made his point, and his rhetoric got right to the heart of the defense, which was going to center around the definition of the word "fair." The men and women who run these corrupt banks and brokerages genuinely believe that their relentless lying and cheating, and even their anti-competitive cartel­style scheming, are all legitimate market processes that lead to legitimate price discovery. In this lunatic worldview, the bid­rigging scheme was a system that created fair returns for everyone. If a bunch of Pennsylvanians got a 5.00 percent return on their money instead of 5.04 percent, and GE and CDR just happened to split the extra .04 percent, that was a fair outcome, because that's what the parties negotiated. True, the Pennsylvanians had no idea about the extra .04 percent, and true, they had hired CDR precisely to make sure they got that extra 0.4 percent. But hey, it's not like they were complaining: Until someone told them they were being brazenly cheated, they were happy with their bond service. And besides, it's not like ordinary people understand this stuff anyway. So how is it the place of some busybody federal prosecutor to waltz in here and say what's a fair price?

Walter Timpone, who represented Carollo, tried to lay this outrageous load of balls on the jury using a faux-folksy analogy. "When your refrigerator breaks down, if you're not mechanically inclined, you're at the mercy of that repair person," he told the jury. "And if he repairs the refrigerator, makes it work well, charges you a fair price, you're likely to call on him again when the stove breaks." What he was essentially telling jurors was: This shit is complicated, so best just to leave it to the experts. Whether they're fixing a fridge or fixing a bond rate, they get to set the price, because we're all morons who are dependent on them to make our world work. Timpone, in his lawyerly way, was actually telling us an essential economic truth: You're at the mercy of that repair person.

This incredible defense, which the attorneys for all three defendants led with, perfectly expresses the awesome arrogance of the modern-day aristocrats who run our financial services sector. Corrupt or not, they built this financial infrastructure, and it's producing the prices they genuinely think are fair for us – and for them. And fair to them is the customer getting the absolute bare minimum, while they get instant millions for work they didn't do. Moreover – and this is the most important part – they believe they should get permanent protection from the ravages of the market, i.e., from one another's competition. Imagine Jack Nicholson on the witness stand, dressed in a repairman's uniform and tool belt. Who's gonna fix those refrigerators? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? You can't handle the truth!

That, ultimately, is what this case was about. Capitalism is a system for determining objective value. What these Wall Street criminals have created is an opposite system of value by fiat. Prices are not objectively determined by collisions of price information from all over the market, but instead are collectively negotiated in secret, then dictated from above.

"One of the biggest lies in capitalism," says Eliot Spitzer, "is that companies like competition. They don't. Nobody likes competition."

To the great credit of the jurors in the Carollo case, they didn't buy Wall Street's ludicrous defense. On May 11th, nearly a month after the trial began, they handed down convictions to all three defendants. Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm, who will be sentenced in October, face as many as five years in jail.

There are some who think that the government is limited in how many corruption cases it can bring against Wall Street, because juries can't understand the complexity of the financial schemes involved. But in USA v. Carollo, that turned out not to be true. "This verdict is proof of that," says Hausfeld, the antitrust attorney. "Juries can and do understand this material."

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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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