THAT’S FINE WITH ME

September 8, 2014 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

By Lynn Ashby                                  8 Sept. 2014

THE COURT ROOM – “Your honor,” I whine, “yes, I have lied and cheated, sold worthless bonds to widows, bundled doomed mortgages and forced thousands of Americans to lose their homes. True, I hid money in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying taxes. I guess you could say I did my part in bringing down the American economy, putting millions out of work, wiping out savings accounts and probably causing global warming, although the jury is still out on that, so to speak. So I will pay the fine of a billions dollars – actually the stockholders will pay it — without admitting any guilt.” I and my high-priced lawyers will leave with my Get Out of Jail Free card. Just pay a big, impressive fine, and walk.

You don’t have to read the following police blotter, just skim it to see what’s going on in your name. Five banks — Wells Fargo & Co., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp., Ally Financial Inc. — agreed to pay $25 billion in penalties and borrower relief over alleged – alleged? — foreclosure processing abuses. The deal represented the largest government-industry settlement since the tobacco deal, which started it all back in 1998 with that $246 billion tobacco industry settlement. At the time it was a record, but the fine hit the entire industry, so it was spread out. No one went to jail.

A week or so ago, Goldman Sachs paid $3.15 billion to buy back mortgage bonds now worth about $1.2 billion less than what they were sold for. This is not a first for Goldman. In 2010 it paid $550 million to settle a similar case. Hey, here is J.P. Morgan again with a “record” $13 billion settlementwith the Department of Justice (DOJ) and other federal regulators over mortgage-backed securities. “(I)t would likely be the biggest fine ever levied by the DOJ.’’ The HSBC (that’s a British bank) agreed to pay $1.9 billion to U.S. authorities over deficiencies in its anti-money-laundering controls. U.S. officials hailed the settlement as “the largest penalty ever under the Bank Secrecy Act.” France’s largest banking house, BNP Paribas, pled guilty to criminal – not civil — charges of money laundering in the U.S. and paid an $8.9 billion fine. But “no BNP employees currently face criminal charges.” Why not?

The pharmaceutical industry seems to be particularly bad medicine: GlaxoSmithKline – July 2012: In what was billed as “the largest healthcare settlement” with the DOJ ever, the drug maker paid $3 billion and pleaded guilty to criminal charges of illegally marketing drugs and withholding safety data from U.S. regulators. In 2009 Pfizer Inc., pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges and paid a $2.3 billion fine. Abbott Laboratories, 2012: The drug maker agreed to pay $1.6 billion and to plead guilty to a criminal misdemeanor violation of a federal drug laws. In 2009, Eli Lilly agreed to pay $1.42 billion to settle a probe into alleged improper marketing of the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa. In 2011, Merck & Co. paid $950 million and plead guilty to a criminal misdemeanor charge.

Some of these pay-to-prey cases involve far more than mere billions. In the BP Gulf oil spill case, it wasn’t just money. Eleven people were killed, others were injured, thousands of Cajuns lost their livelihood and it was months before I could get a decent shrimp etouffee. BP pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges and agreed to pay (guess what?) “a record” $4 billion in government penalties. The gang in BP’s executive suite, who had to know what corners were being cut, what safety measures were being ignored, paid a fine just in time for their 11 a.m. tee time. Only one guy, a middle management engineer from Katy, was convicted of destroying emails, the conviction was thrown out and the government may or may not appeal. Now let’s look at these figures DOJ and others crow about. Bank of America’s fine of $16.7 billion is to go to consumer relief, but the bank can take some of that off its federal income taxes. What a deal. Only a small fraction of hurt homeowners would get relief, and that won’t be parceled out until – get this – 2018. The actual amount the bank pays will probably be close to $12 billion, a lot of money but nothing like the fine the feds proudly put out.

A question: Follow the money, but where does it go? Do the DOJ lawyers get to bill by the hour? Maybe Attorney General Eric Holder has one super bank account. The money probably goes into the U.S. Treasury never to be seen again. True, the treasury deals in trillions, not billions, of dollars, but these are still sizeable sums. It was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen who supposedly said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” Someone has to know what happens to this huge amount of cash, but I’ve never heard just where it goes. Have you? One place the money should go is to whistle-blowers. Some fink the other day got $400,000 from the government for ratting out a crook who owed Washington millions. Good for him or her.

Back to our original question: Why isn’t, say, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon still walking around his yacht or golf course or summer house in Cannes instead of making license plates in prison? Why are Joe Cassano (head of the AIG’s derivatives business), Angelo Mozilo (whose Countrywide Lending mortgages were the embodiment of toxic loans) and Richard Fuld (the CEO of Lehman Brothers) not in the clink? You hold up a convenience store for $50, you do time. You steal billions, you walk. Their companies were called too big to fail. These guys apparently are too big to jail. That reminds me: “Your Honor, I’ve signed the check and now I’ve got to go. I’ve got an 11 o’clock tee time.”

Ashby is just fine at ashby2@comcast.net

A WEEKEND OF FREE CONCERTS TO WELCOME NEW MUSIC DIRECTOR, ANDRÉS OROZCO-ESTRADA

September 4, 2014 by  
Filed under Events

HS at Miller - Chinh PhanFree “¡Bienvenido, Andrés!” Concert at Miller Outdoor Theatre on September 12 – with Fireworks!

Free Fiesta Sinfónica con Andrés Concert at Jones Hall on September 14

Join the Houston Symphony for a weekend of free symphonic fun to celebrate the arrival of its 15th music director, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, for his inaugural season.  With a deep-rooted desire to make orchestral music more accessible to the community, Andrés has chosen to launch his tenure with the Houston Symphony with two free public performances – a concert at Miller Outdoor Theatre on Friday, September 12 and a concert at Jones Hall on Sunday, September 14.

“It’s important for me to start my inaugural season with a celebration for the entire community,” Andrés says of including two free concerts in his first weekend. “I’d love to invite the whole city of Houston to attend!”

The weekend will kick off on September 12 at 8:30 p.m. with “¡Bienvenido Andrés!,” a free performance at Miller Outdoor Theatre, complete with fireworks!  Audiences are encouraged to arrive as early as 6:30 p.m. to claim their seat on the hill and experience pre-concert activities in the surrounding area, including music, salsa dancing lessons and activities provided in partnership with the Houston Dynamo and Mega 101FM.  Starting at 8:30 p.m., Andrés will lead the orchestra through music of Colombia and America, complete with folk dancing and other festive elements.  Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero will dazzle the audience with Gershwin’s jazz-influenced Rhapsody in Blue. This concert is made possible in part through the support of the City of Houston through the Miller Theatre Advisory Board and Houston First Corporation and will be broadcast live by Official Television Partner KTRK-TV Channel 13.

The weekend culminates on Sunday, September 14 at 6 p.m. with “Fiesta Sinfónica con Andrés,” another free concert at Jones Hall.  Join the Houston Symphony’s first Hispanic music director in commemorating Hispanic Heritage Month with sizzling danzas from Mexico, France and Colombia.  Piano superstar, Gabriela Montero, rejoins the Houston Symphony for this final performance of the weekend by reprising Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The 2014-15 season marks the entrance to the Houston Symphony’s 101st year under the baton of Andrés, who begins a five year contract with the organization.  Born in Medellin, Colombia, he began his musical studies in violin and first conducted at age 15. At 19 years old and speaking only Spanish, Andrés traveled alone to Vienna and completed his degree from the renowned Vienna Music Academy with distinction.  With his infectious warmth, love of people and electricity on the podium, the 36-year-old Colombian-born and Vienna-trained Andrés is looking forward to creating ongoing, meaningful connections with patrons and engaging more Houstonians in orchestral music during his first season and beyond.

“I am so proud to become part of this wonderful city and the 100-year tradition at the Houston Symphony,” said Andrés. “Every time I walk onto the Jones Hall stage to rehearse and perform with these musicians, I feel something extraordinary, and I look forward to sharing this excitement, connecting more closely to the music, with all of our patrons.”

CONCERT WEEKEND OVERVIEW

¡Bienvenido, Andrés! Concert
Friday, September 12, 2014, 8:30 p.m.
Free Community Performance at Miller Outdoor Theatre, with Fireworks!
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Gabriela Montero, piano
Tickets: FREE
This is a ticketed event for the covered seating area. Free tickets are available at the Miller Outdoor Theatre box office the day of the performance, between the hours of 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. As always, there is open seating available on the hill.

Miller Outdoor Theatre
6000 Hermann Park Drive, Houston, TX  77030

Fiesta Sinfónica con Andrés
Sunday, September 14, 2014, 6:00 p.m.
Free Community Performance at Jones Hall
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Gabriela Montero, piano
Tickets: FREE
This is a ticketed event. Tickets are available on a first come, first served basis and must be picked up in person at the Houston Symphony Patron Services Center Monday – Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.

Jones Hall
615 Louisiana St., Houston, TX 77002

PULLING THEIR LEG

September 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

WANTED: The State of Texas is looking for a cat burglar. No, not someone who steals cats, but a black-clad trapeze artist who can slip through air vents or climb up drain pipes. Just get an object that is rightfully ours, but leave the roasted chicken alone. Will pay well. Jeeze, if the UT-System can fork over $2.2 million to its new chancellor for his first year alone — who’s a journalism graduate of all things — money is no object in Austin.

I can tell that I’m going too fast, so let me explain. Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s leg is in a museum in Illinois when it should, by all rights, be in Texas, which has already given him an arm and a leg. We want that leg and Illinois won’t give it to us, so we’re going to steal it. But let’s begin even earlier. Every Texan knows all about Santa Anna, the Napoleon of the West, as he liked to call himself. He was one of those banana republic dictators who was president of Mexico nine (or 11) times. We hate him and the Mexicans aren’t too fond of him. I was visiting Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City years ago and overheard a guide, speaking in English to a group of gringos looking at a portrait: “And this is General Santa Anna who had the distinct honor of losing one-third of Mexico.” You get their drift.

He was a bloody tyrant. Recall that he killed more Texans at Goliad – 303 unarmed POWS — than at the Alamo. Even so, putting down other rebellions, he killed more Mexicans than Anglos. He was allegedly terrified of bodies of water, and he used opium. After the Battle of San Jacinto, Santa Anna was captured, went to New York City, where urban legend has it he introduced chewing gum to Americans, went back to Mexico, resumed his presidency and returned to war. In 1838 at Vera Cruz (no relation to Ted) during the so-called “Pastry War” (don’t ask) with the French, one of Santa Anna’s real legs was shattered by artillery fire and it had to be amputated — it was buried with full military honors — and he began wearing an artificial leg made of wood and cork. Flash forward to the Mexican-American War and, no, it was not a war against Mexican-Americans, some of whom fought gallantly on our side.

During the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847, the Mexican general had to beat a hasty retreat on a donkey. Some soldiers of the 4th Illinois Infantry overran his position, finding Santa Anna’s carriage with a sack holding $18,000 in gold (which they turned in) and a roasted chicken lunch (which they ate). They kept the leg. Later the veteran who owned it even sold peeks at the leg during the 1850s and 1860s for 10 cents a pop, before the veteran’s family donated it to the state of Illinois. Incidentally, a second limb, a peg leg, was reportedly later used by Lt. Abner Doubleday as a baseball bat. That one is on display at the mansion of a former governor in Decatur, Ill.

Now we get another weird part of this story. Not many Illinosians (Illinosy? Ill-at-ease?) thought much about the leg, held in a dusty case at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield, until a writer for the cartoon TV show King of the Hill read online about the leg and wrote an episode which ran in 1998. In that story, one of the characters stole the leg in Texas (wrong state). After that program ran, people began visiting the museum and asking about Santa Anna’s leg, so in 2006 the museum took it out of the case and built an impressive diorama for it, recreating the moment of its capture. The leg is propped in an elegant carriage surrounded by soldier mannequins. That sack of gold nabbed at the time is displayed as a couple of strong boxes cracked open. There’s even a plate with that roasted chicken on it.

There’s a major problem with this story. The leg is in Illinois, which had no Alamo, no Goliad, no San Jacinto and probably not very good Tex-Mex. You never heard of Ill-Mex. There were probably a lot of one-legged Mexican generals, and the only reason anyone cares about Santa Anna today is due to Texas. We have tried various ways to get the leg. But the museum keepers say it is now the main draw to the place, and aren’t about to give it up. The latest attempt came last May. Remember when the White House said it would consider for action any petition with 100,000 signatures? The San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum launched a petition on the White House website, hoping to get enough signatures to get the White House involved in this intra-state dispute, and bring the leg here, but the staff missed the deadline.

If Mexicans cared about Santa Anna they might be willing to trade his former leg for the Alamo Flag (a great story for another time), but first we’d have to get the leg. What could we trade Illinois for that prosthesis? They already have a presidential library. We have three, although Sen. Vera Cruz might make it four. Wanna trade? Houston would gladly trade the Astros and the Texans for anything, although the Chicago Texans would sound as odd as the Salt Lake City Jazz. We have lots of money (see above: UT chancellor); name your price. Do we really need Waco? Oil. That’s the ticket. Chicago has those horrible winter storms, so we could ship them lots of heating oil. No, the only solution is to hire a cat burglar, have him or her swipe the object, bring it here, then explain to Illinois that in his newly discovered will Santa Anna named Texas as the sole beneficiary of his leg — and the roasted chicken.

 

Ashby trades at ashby2@comcast.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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