Looting Main Street
(Rolling Stone) -- By MATT TAIBBI --
If you want to know what life in the Third World is like, just ask Lisa Pack, an administrative assistant who works in the roads and transportation department in Jefferson County, Alabama. Pack got rudely introduced to life in post-crisis America last August, when word came down that she and 1,000 of her fellow public employees would have to take a little unpaid vacation for a while. The county, it turned out, was more than $5 billion in debt — meaning that courthouses, jails and sheriff's precincts had to be closed so that Wall Street banks could be paid...
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.
The original cost estimates for the new sewer system were as low as $250 million. But in a wondrous demonstration of the possibilities of small-town graft and contract-padding, the price tag quickly swelled to more than $3 billion. County commissioners were literally pocketing wads of cash from builders and engineers and other contractors eager to get in on the project, while the county was forced to borrow obscene sums to pay for the rapidly spiraling costs. Jefferson County, in effect, became one giant, TV-stealing, unemployed drug addict who borrowed a million dollars to buy the mother of all McMansions — and just as it did during the housing bubble, Wall Street made a business of keeping the crook in his house. As one county commissioner put it, "We're like a guy making $50,000 a year with a million-dollar mortgage."
To reassure lenders that the county would pay its mortgage, commissioners gave the finance director — an unelected official appointed by the president of the commission — the power to automatically raise sewer rates to meet payments on the debt. The move brought in billions in financing, but it also painted commissioners into a corner. If costs continued to rise — and with practically every contractor in Alabama sticking his fingers on the scale, they were rising fast — officials would be faced with automatic rate increases that would piss off their voters. (By 2003, annual interest on the sewer deal had reached $90 million.) So the commission reached out to Wall Street, looking for creative financing tools that would allow it to reduce the county's staggering debt payments.
Wall Street was happy to help. First, it employed the same trick it used to fuel the housing crisis: It switched the county from a fixed rate on the bonds it had issued to finance the sewer deal to an adjustable rate. The refinancing meant lower interest payments for a couple of years — followed by the risk of even larger payments down the road. The move enabled county commissioners to postpone the problem for an election season or two, kicking it to a group of future commissioners who would inevitably have to pay the real freight...MORE...LINK