Thursday, December 19, 2013

Preet Bharara Pours Gasoline on the Fire

Protests continue in India over diplomat's arrest. Thank you, Preet Bharara!


The raging diplomatic incident that has breached relations between the U.S. and India--the arrest of a deputy counsel general on visa charges--continued to simmer on Wednesday. TV reports showed images straight out of the sixties, with protesters burning American flags and an effigy (above). Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement of regret, and the furor lead off  Erin Burnett's CNN broadcast (hosted by Chris Cuomo) at 7 p.m.

It seemed that cooler heads were prevailing--for a few minutes. Then a not-so-cool head, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, stepped in, and proceeded to pour a gallon of Exxon Unleaded on the raging fire.

Bharara, whose ham-handed prosecution of the diplomat--charges carrying a fifteen-year prison term--touched off this entirely unnecessary diplomatic rupture with a key U.S. ally, was apparently feeling the heat. Or, perhaps, he didn't think that soothing U.S.-India ties were a good idea. Or something.

In a gratuitously nasty statement emailed to reporters at 7:25 p.m., Bharara defended not just his prosecution of the Indian counsel, Devyani Khobragade, but also the body-cavity search which so enraged Indians. It was not carried out by his office, but not to worry, Bharara was mad as hell and not going to take all the "inaccuracies" in the media anymore.

The New York Times called it "an unusual and robust public defense," and reported that "the tone of Mr. Bharara’s statement, issued in the evening in New York, seemed in marked contrast to an expression of  'regret' made earlier in the day by Secretary of State John Kerry." That's putting it mildly.

In a way, you have to admire Bharara for stepping up to the plate and slamming one into the stands (albeit, the ones behind him) with quite so much vigor.  A more astute prosecutor, or one desiring to  repair this international incident, would have either kept silent or leaked to the media about how Khobragade was allowed to keep her cell phone and was given a cup of coffee by the arresting officers, etc.

Bharara ended his statement by saying that "this Office's sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law - no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are."

He might have added: "... unless they are major bankers who precipitated the financial crisis of 2008. In that case, I'll find an excuse not to prosecute them."

Predictably, India did not react favorably to Bharara's statement. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a response. CNN-IBN reported: "Taking a dig at the US Attorney prosecuting the case, MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said, 'The statement issued by Preet Bharara that the procedure followed in the Indian diplomat case is a standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor is a rhetorical remark and that is not conducisve in resolving inaccuracies.' " The Times of India reported further on the antagonism that Bharara generated  by his statement.

There's no question that India has overreacted, and also that there is another side to this story--the domestic worker whose complaint of underpayment resulted in this whole crisis. But there's a deeper issue here, one of judgment and prosecutorial priorities. It's been my belief for quite some time that Preet Bharara's are way out of whack. This whole episode not only confirms that, but shows that there is something seriously wrong with his judgment and temperament.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
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My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss


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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Could Arrest of Indian Diplomat Sink Preet Bharara?

Won't prosecute "untouchables," but fierce against errant diplomats

For years, complaints have swirled around the most visible--and inexplicable--outcome of the 2008 financial crisis: Not a single financial executive has been prosecuted for doing engaging in any criminal activity. And no, I don't mean insider trading, a favorite of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. I mean the kind of stuff that almost sank the banking system.

PBS's Frontline, in a memorable special report, called them "The Untouchables."

Five years after the crisis, prosecutors here are supposedly "exploring new strategies for criminally charging Wall Street bankers who packaged and sold the bad mortgage loans behind the financial crisis," according to Reuters, but time is not on their side. The trail is going cold, and statute of limitation issues are going to start kicking in.

Bharara has famously focused on other kinds of wrongdoing--drug gangs in the Bronx, insider trading rings, and other wrongdoing not involving large, politically connected Wall Street banks. Most recently, his office arrested Devyani Khobragade, deputy consul general for India based in New York, for allegedly submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her housekeeper and paying the woman less than the minimum legal wage. She faces ten years in prison on one charge and five on another.

It seemed at first as yet another day at the office for Bharara, who I profiled for the Daily Beast in 2011. Another heavy-handed prosecution of a fairly routine immigration-law violation, aimed at deterring other transgressors, and also showing the public that the man is not entirely an empty suit. I mean, he is actually doing something. He may not be prosecuting people involved in the financial crisis, but at least he can nab people for visa transgressions.

I wonder if Bharara knew that he'd be touching off the worst diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and India--a crucial U.S. ally, for heaven's sake--in recent memory.

The Indians have gone ballistic. There was outrage that not only was Khobragade arrested, but strip-searched and tossed in the clink with dope addicts before forking over a steep $250,000 bail. The New York Times reported today that the U.S. ambassador was summoned for a strongly worded protest, and people in Delhi were furious. Indian authorities even removed the vehicle barriers that prevent car-bombers from driving into the U.S. Embassy grounds.

The Indian national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, used words like “despicable” and “barbaric,” and the Indian government retaliated in a way that harkened back to the Cold War, when India and the U.S. were barely on speaking terms:

In addition to removing the maze of concrete security barriers surrounding the American Embassy compound, Indian news reports said, officials demanded that the embassy provide details about all the Indians it employs, as well as the names and salaries of teachers at the American Embassy School; that the embassy commissary stop importing liquor; and that diplomatic identification cards for consular staff members and their families be returned.

Here's a video from NDTV of the barriers being removed outside the U.S. Embassy:



What's striking about this diplomatic crisis is that it was totally unnecessary. Expelling the diplomat, or arresting her while showing more sensitivity to Indian sensibilities (you'd think the Indian-born Bharara would be acquainted with them) would have had the same deterrent effect, without causing a rupture in U.S.-India relations.

And yes, it is a rupture.  Politicians from leading parties refused to meet a visiting U.S. congressional delegation, The Guardian reported. The leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party suggested arresting gay U.S. diplomats because homosexuality is illegal in India, the Times reported.

This is not to say that there isn't an element of hypocrisy in the Indian protest. As the Times points out, "It is not unusual in India for domestic staff to be paid poorly and required to work more than 60 hours a week; they are sometimes treated abominably. Reports of maids being imprisoned or abused by their employers are frequent."

But that's beside the point. The handling of Khobragade's case was inept, and  as ham-handed as his approach to Wall Street has been hesitant. Make no mistake: all this happened because of one man, the prosecutor who can't find a single major banker to prosecute, but seems to think that a deputy counsel general of a major U.S. ally should get ten years in prison for visa violations. Right now it is Devyani Khobragade who is in jeopardy, but I have to wonder if Bharara has sealed his own downfall with this prosecutorial overreaching.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
Please note that the comment function does not work, possibly because I've screwed up the settings. No problem. Drop me a line at the email address on the right side of this blog, and I'll include your comments.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Bernie Madoff



Today is the fifth anniversary of the Bernie Madoff scandal. Here is the blog item I wrote on it at the time.

Interestingly, the questions that I raised at the time--how did he do it and for how long--have never been satisfactorily and comprehensively answered in the years since.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Franz Kafka, Obamacare, and Me

He worked for two insurance companies.

I should preface this by saying that when I signed up for my 2014 health insurance last month on the New York exchange, four United Healthcare plans were available to me, in ascending order of price: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

I couldn't help but notice that the Silver plan was substantially better than the Gold plan. The annual deductible was less--just $500 for two people, vs. $1200 for the Gold plan. Copayments were less, as was the maximum out-of-pocket ($4000 vs. $8000).  Yet the Gold plan cost $235 a month more.

It made no sense whatsoever. I also thought it odd that this peculiarity was nowhere noted in any of the news media accounts of the New York debut of Obamacare. But my feeling at the time was that this was the System, and it was not to be questioned. I signed up for the Silver plan.

On Friday the first monthly bill for 2014 arrived in the mail. It contained no details of my insurance coverage, just a bill. The bill matched the amount stated on the website when I signed up for the plan some weeks ago. It described the Silver plan for which I signed up as "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS."

A perusal of the United Healthcare website for New York health exchange plans showed plan documents for 12 New York Silver plans. However, "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" was not there.

A Google search for "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" revealed that it did not exist.


The plan I signed up for did not exist

I telephoned the toll-free number provided on the website. I was connected to a customer service person after a short wait. I described the discrepancy to her. I pointed out to her that no health plan called  "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" was listed on the United Healthcare website.

The existence of this discrepancy  appeared to annoy this person. She behaved as if I was somehow withholding information readily available to me, or was too dimwitted to read plain English.

"Can you please tell me the plan that you signed up for?" she asked.

I pointed out to her, again, everything I had previously told her, including that the website called the plan merely "Silver EPO" but that I was billed for "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS."

That was impossible, she said to me. The website surely must have a more complete description of the plan than "Silver EPO." No, I responded, it did not.

She did not believe me.  She told me that no plan called "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" existed for New York State, and that no Silver plan had such a low annual deductible.

No supervisor was available

"If that's true, then what plan did I sign up for? What am I being asked to pay for?" I asked.

"I don't have that information," she said.

Would it help if I called the phone number listed on the bill?

"That's just the billing number," she said.

Could I speak to a supervisor?

"They have all gone home," she said. She promised that one would call me Monday morning.

I telephoned the New York Health Exchange. After an hour of waiting, during which time I was told repeatedly by a mechanical voice, "Your call is important to us," I was disconnected.

My call was important to them

I called back United Healthcare. I was promptly connected to a customer service representative. Her manner and tone were so different from the previous one that it was if she was from a different planet.

After hearing about the discrepancy, she pointed out to me that the New York Silver plan that I signed up for did indeed exist, but was not "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" but was actually " Silver EPO Rx 9.20.40 87AV CSR."

Yes, she said, the information on the New York Exchange website is and was correct. The deductibles are correct, as are the copayments and annual spending limits.

She said she did not know why it had a different name than the one stated on my bill, but assured me that it was the same one.

My fate remains uncertain
I questioned her closely. Her answers were clear and reassuring. Yes, the Silver plan is cheaper than the Gold plan. Yes it is better.  She had no explanation.

"A number of people have asked about that," she said.

I wasn't sure what to make of these two conversations. Was the System toying with me? Was I being punished? But if so, for what? What did I do? What was my crime? How would this end?

I will find out on January 1.

Note: Comments are accepted for this blog and as of this writing there was one published comment. However, perhaps not surprisingly, when I click on the "comment" button below I get a "not found" message.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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