WTWF: It really SOX.

As the Wells Fargo scandal unfolded, in the back of my mind was just how the requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, enacted in 2002 in response to the Enron and Worldcom debacles, did not protect the investors, general public and the bank’s employees.

Sarbanes-Oxley is referred to as SOX. It did not create much in the way of new regulations, but it did formalize how publicly traded companies implemented and enforced internal control policies and procedures. It also raised the stakes for key corporate managers – including the Board of Directors, CEO, CFO and in-house attorneys – as far as their individual roles in assuring that the controls governing financial and ethical performance were observed. For example, corporate attorneys must report suspicions of fraudulent acts to their company’s chief legal counsel and CEO. They can go to the audit committee if there appears to be insufficient effort to investigate.

SOX also created the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), or Peekaboo, as it is known by industry finance, auditing and accounting professionals. Peekaboo oversees the external auditors’ work, which had been largely self-regulated. Audit firms are now subject to inspections by the Board.

Violating any SOX regulation could be worthy of criminal charges, yet few executives have faced charges, much less been convicted, under its umbrella. It is seemingly stupefying considering key executives must sign certifications as to the accuracy of the financial statements, but understandable when CEOs are shielded by sub-certifications their companies make lower-level managers sign, creating buffers. It is reminiscent of a scene from Godfather 2, where a lieutenant of the Corleone Family tells a Senate Committee how the Godfather had layers of people between himself and those who took care of the actual dirty work.

There’s an excellent article which emphasizes how the additional layers obfuscates a CEO’s involvement.

But the impact on Wells Fargo’s financial statements was minimal, only $2.4 million. By itself, that would not create any stir on Wall Street, certainly not enough to push the stock price upwards.

And probably not enough to subject John Stumph to criminal charges, much less convicted, for deliberate misstatement of the financial statements. Just think – the DOJ did not bother pursuing a criminal action against Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo, so why would it start now?

However, the phony accounts did create an illusion of long-term customer loyalty. One could argue that shareholders would be inclined to hold the stock longer than they otherwise would. Think of it as contrived price support.

Regardless, it was fraud.

It is almost certain that some of the sub-certifiers who knew of the scheme would gladly cooperate with the Feds and help prosecutors construct a trail to Stumph and his key people. Call it buffer-busting.

The DOJ should also look to what SOX refers to as Entity Level controls. Also known as “the tone at the top,” these cover the corporate culture and how it affects the risk of circumventing the activity controls directly related to financial reporting. So, an overly aggressive marketing program, similar to the one used by Wells Fargo, may create an atmosphere of fear among the sales staff and lead to fraudulent actions. A definite red flag which should have caused the SOX auditors to dig deeper at Wells Fargo.

In the end, why do we have SOX if it is not used to help bring down unscrupulous executives?

Would you agree to guarantee a contractor a virtually unlimited amount of funds to build a house?

If the answer is “yes,” then there are some business people in Nigeria who would like to talk to you.

The MTA board may as well relocate its office to Lagos.

By an 11-2 vote, the board approved a permanent sales tax which is estimated to raise $860 million per year in today’s dollars. Theoretically, forever.

Proponents of the measure argue that the voters can always rescind it down the line if they are not happy with the results.

What would be the odds of success? Average citizens would have to not only organize a grassroots movement, but raise many millions of dollars to fight proponents backed by the deep pockets and logistics of developers.

We do need to raise many billions of dollars for transportation projects, but there must be accountability. An unlimited stream of cash will not incentivize the MTA and its contractors to manage budgets. Only the sobering reality of losing future funding offers a chance of ensuring financial discipline. It’s a fact of life – MTA board members will come and go. They will not have to live up to long-term promises.

The Measure attempts to assuage the concerns of the residents with the formation of oversight committees and independent audits, but there are no legal requirements for the MTA to implement recommendations or fix audit findings.

The only way to control the effective use of funds is by requiring the MTA board to re-approach the voters periodically – say in 20 years initially, then every 5-10 years thereafter, to up the level of funding. If they want to exceed the 40-year horizon of the proposed wave of projects, they must earn our support first by demonstrating cost-effective and timely progress.

Putting the onus on the passengers of a train to prevent a trainwreck, rather than insisting that the engineer apply the brakes before one occurs, is “bass ackwards.”

But that is essentially what Measure M will do by almost certainly assuring unlimited funding.

The Times Are Right

Both the New York Times and LA times have recently published informative articles about the status of public pensions, particularly Calpers. LA Times’ Jack Dolan and James Koren have provided sober analysis in recent weeks.

The reporters have echoed the same concerns I, Jack Humphreville, respected members of academia and many in other publications have been sounding for years – concerns over the diminishing sustainability of the defined benefit plans that almost every politician at the state and local government levels have ignored. A few, including Governor Brown and former Governor Schwarzenegger, have attempted modest reforms and failed, because of the death-grip public unions have on our elected officials.

The NY Times article, by Mary Williams Walsh, is particularly interesting because it reads like a case study. For all intents and purposes, it is one. It deals with a small fund managed by Calpers. Since this particular fund is so small, it is easier for readers to wrap their heads around the math. But it is the same math behind every other defined benefit plan, large and small. Just as a lab experiment on a single cancerous cell can speak volumes about the greater disease, so can this case shed light on the cancer of public pensions.

Basically, the problem boils down to using aggressive favorable assumptions to gauge the financial health of plans, plans which are required to fully guarantee the promises made to their members. The assumptions have masked the weakness of the underlying numbers.

The important difference between a market vs actuarial approach to funding defined benefit plans is critical, as the article suggests. As the small pension unit in the article learned, Calpers charged them the market rate to liquidate the plan, which was a sum far greater than the actuarial value Calpers uses to assess the health of any plan.

Quite a shock to the participants who assumed things were just peachy.

Calpers wants it both ways: use the blue-sky view for public disclosure, but penalize participants based on reality. It’s called “having your cake and eating it too” (a few of my colleagues at Citywatch know how much I detest that expression, but it applies here).

The truth is, Calpers should not be hanging its hat on one approach vs the other. A range of values needs to be shared with the public, and funding should be based on at least a blend of outcomes.

That means either taxpayers fork over more money, or the participating employees contribute more. The taxpayers are already covering too much, not to mention bearing the risk if there are insufficient funds to pay participants.

How much more participants should pay is arguable, but it would cause some degree of pain in any event – manageable pain.

In the private sector, typical employees pay 6.2% for SSA retirement and contribute at least 6% into a 401K. State employees contribute anywhere from 5% to 11.5% of their salaries. Pretty good compared to the 12.2% absorbed by their counterparts. Safety workers are at the higher end, but can retire much earlier and collect up to 90% of their salaries.

A private-sector worker would pay $1 million to purchase an annuity comparable to an average CalPERS’ benefit starting at age 60. A state employee earning an average of $100,000 and contributing 10% would pay in $300,000 over 30 years in gross terms. Obviously, discounting the amount would lower it considerably.

That’s a pretty large gap. In any event, Calpers would still be a good deal for employees if their contribution rates doubled.

And why not?

Investors pay more, in the form of a lower yield, for less exposure to risk. Why shouldn’t public employees pay a premium for what is a risk-free, lifetime benefit?

The system is not going to collapse tomorrow. It’s similar to a sinking ship, which takes on water but stays afloat….that is until buoyancy is lost.

When that happens, it goes down faster than the Edmond Fitzgerald.

Time to start pumping and sealing the leak.

Field of Dreams

Through the efforts of Valley Village Homeowners Association and Neighborhood Council Valley Village, a homeless encampment along the 170 embankment, adjacent to Valley Village Park, was cleared.

Since the camp was on Cal Trans property, we asked for and received support from our State Assembly Member. The CHP posted warnings before arranging for the removal of the personal items and trash – there was a considerable amount of the latter.

I was not around to witness the intervention, but there is every reason to believe it was handled as responsibly as possible. No complaints were filed; no reports of violence or excessive force.

The North Hollywood side of the 170 has a homeless problem of its own, too, especially along Tujunga Avenue, where a dozen or so RVs and vans have become permanent fixtures, and homeless prowl the grounds of the Amelia Earhart Regional Library.

While I am pleased by the removal of the Valley Village Park camp, I acknowledge society’s failure in dealing with the underlying problem.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to cast a vote for the city’s proposed $1.2B bond measure, the objective of which is to acquire land and construct housing. It is certainly preferable over a parcel tax, but the cost ultimately still flows through our property tax bills.

But I am not ready to support handing the City Council (or the County Supervisors, for that matter) massive amounts of money when there is no outline or plan to organize, manage and, most importantly, perform timely audits of effectiveness. I would feel a little optimistic if the activities were supervised by financially responsible officials – competent individuals, say someone comparable to City Controller Ron Galperin. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough of Ron to go around.

Whatever the plan, if it does not recognize the distinct challenges posed by the two major component groups of the homeless population – economic victims and those afflicted by mental illness or substance abuse – it is doomed to fail. The plan must allow for triage: the chances of helping the former group are far greater than the latter. $1.2 Billion may sound like a lot, but is is less than $50K for each of the estimated 26,000 homeless. How much housing and services can $50K buy?

We need to focus, then, on making the maximum impact and accept the fact there will be many who are beyond assistance. I am referring to the persons who require institutionalization. Sadly, our laws prevent involuntary medical intervention.

Progress has its own issues, too. There is truth to the line from the film Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” Even if we achieve a degree of success, there is a risk: we will create a magnet for new waves of homeless persons from other regions, which would offset, if not overwhelm, our capacity to deal with the problem.

Triage is the practical approach, then. Help the homeless in manageable increments. Also, a one-size-fits-all style of housing will not work. Everything from dormitories to well-organized, military-type camps must be considered. Experimentation will be required. We should not hand over a billion dollars until officials can provide evidence of success on a limited scale first.

Lastly, we must not dig ourselves a deeper hole. It is absolute insanity to encourage the destruction of serviceable, affordable housing units, as the city presently does. I was heartened to hear the news that the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative received many more signatures than necessary to qualify for the March 2017 ballot. Without it, our elected officials would be content to create the next generation of homeless in exchange for campaign contributions from developers.

And you are unlikely to find a homeless politician in this city or any other.

The Rio Olympics is history.

The green water of the diving and water polo pools has been emptied into Guanabara Bay. The Brazilian Army’s deployment helped keep a lid on crime, but it could not prevent Ryan Lochte from creating an international incident.

In all fairness, Rio did pull off a mostly controversy-free Games, but there are lessons for Los Angeles. If we win the bid for 2024, our dirty laundry will be aired to the world.

No matter how hard a host city tries, it will be under the microscope.

Let me say, I believe LA can stage a financially successful Olympics. As skeptical as I can be about our city’s finances, remember: the mayor and city council will not be pulling the strings. Look for a Mitt Romney or Peter Ueberroth to run the show. Mitt should be available.

First, we have to secure the bid.

So, talk of who should light the cauldron at the Coliseum is way too premature.

But according to TMZ, Mayor Garcetti has expressed a preference for Caitlyn Jenner to do the honors.

While Jenner has garnered both Olympic and social preeminence, the highly publicized transgender personality wins, at best, a fourth-place medal as a candidate for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

While I hesitate to speculate who would best represent the nation and the region, since the mayor has prematurely opened the door, I’ll weigh in.

The gold medal winner in the race to light the flame belongs to someone who represents the best in America and a symbol of our Southern California lifestyle. Who better for that role than Kerry Walsh-Jennings.

When you think of LA, the beach…and beach volleyball…emerge as one of several symbols of our culture.

Walsh-Jennings is a model of sportsmanship, competitiveness and triumph. In a span that transcended five Olympiads (including one as a member of the indoor team at the Sydney 2000 Games), she won three golds and a bronze. She also had a sensational career as a player at Stanford. She earned her degree there, as well. Not too shabby.

Jenner, whose achievements are noteworthy and has shown personal courage, unfortunately brings to mind the Kardashian clan. I do not believe we want Kim, Kanye and company leveraging off the publicity – as if they need any.

Regardless, this is about selecting a role model all can admire; one who sets a standard for achievement with humility and grace.

Let the mayor know Walsh-Jennings can best represent us before the world.


State Senator Bob Hertzberg is a smart man; smart enough to know the power of language. According to his bio, as an undergraduate English major, he wrote a 400-page handbook titled A Commonsense Approach to English.

To paraphrase a quote attributed to the late US Senator Everett Dirksen: A deft turn of a definition here, and a subtle re-characterization there, the next thing you know, we are dealing with some serious money!

And that has been Hertzberg’s game plan since he returned to the legislature in December 2014.

He introduced SB 8, a bill cloaked by a seemingly harmless name – the Upward Mobility Act. The senator described it as a tool to “modernize” the state’s tax structure. He admitted it would be designed to yield another $10B in tax revenue.

The bill died, but that did not stop Bob from reintroducing a replacement: SB 1445.

As SB 8 proposed, this new bill would extend the application of sales tax to services, a direct hit to all segments of society – the middle class, most notably. As he did with SB 8, he is characterizing it as “modernization.”

The only thing being modernized is the state’s access to our wallets.

But the “serial hugger” is not stopping there.  He again whipped out his English to Taxation dictionary to conjure up SB 1298.

His objective is to do an end run around Prop 218’s requirement for voter approval of tax increases by redefining “sewer service” to include stormwater projects. Perhaps “serial wordsmith” would serve as a better moniker for him. Please read the excellent editorial concerning 1298 in the Daily News. 

The bill has a worthwhile objective.  It is designed to encourage recovery of stormwater. No one is arguing with the benefits it offers to our drought-stricken state.

But it is dangerous to override the benefits of government transparency and the legislative process.

Californians are being asked to pony up more cash to fund a growing list of expensive projects.  In Los Angeles alone, we are being asked to pass a permanent increase in the sales tax for the MTA.  The city and county are considering spending over a billion dollars to provide housing to the homeless.  There is also the trainwreck of HSR absorbing funds that could be used to enhance the state’s water capacity.

Our state and local governments have no grasp of prioritization.  Capital budgeting is completely absent in the minds of Hertzberg, his colleagues in Sacramento and counterparts at the local level.

Taxpayers have a right to weigh in on what needs attention and the means of paying.  To do so requires presenting the big picture of competing needs. Let the people decide what is most important and authorize appropriate funding levels.

We do not have unlimited funds; we can only afford what can be sustained without breaking the bank.

Sneaking around the voters and playing word games, as Hertzberg has been doing, is disrespectful to all of us.




Growing up, novels and films about political intrigue and international conflicts were my favorites.

To an extent, they still are. There just haven’t been enough of them; the last notable one was Bridge of Spies, about the real-life negotiations to free downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers during the height of the Cold War. Coincidentally, the hero, James Donovan, graduated from the same school I attended in the Bronx – way more than a few years before I entered its doors.

Ian Fleming, who created James Bond, sparked my interest in the espionage genre. I binge read all twelve Bond novels before freshman year in high school.

My all time favorite thriller, though, was The Manchurian Candidate, a novel by Richard Condon, and released as a film in 1962. Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey were the leads, but Angela Lansbury stole the show with her portrayal of a conniving, cold-blooded conspirator – a far cry from Jessica in Murder, She Wrote. The 2004 version was disappointing, but that is usually the case with a remake of a classic.

In the novel and the film, a seemingly ultra-conservative demagogue and his wife are part of a communist plot to win the presidency.

My memories of the story have been reawakened by the potential subterfuge involving Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Julian Assange. I can’t help but to project those three against the fictional plot: Trump as the blabbering demagogue serving as a front for the communists, Putin as the Soviet handler responsible for enabling the conspiracy and Assange as the one who pulls the strings (Lansbury’s role). The plan entails playing on the emotions of the nation in order to achieve the sinister objective.

Am I allowing my imagination run wild?

You bet, but I just can’t pass this stuff up. It has all the components of the film: deceit, conspiracy and reprehensible characters.

Can life imitate art?

Yes, but with limits.

Although it is true that Putin and Assange would dearly love to embarrass the United States by exploiting the DNC and Clinton e-mail fiascoes, it is far less likely that Trump possesses the planning skills to make it work in his favor. His campaign, after all, is a series of spontaneous outbursts. Encouraging Putin to continue hacking the Clinton campaign e-mails, while disgusting, is not a crime. It is more like irrational bombast. If he did go as far as to conspire with them, his next reality show would be broadcast from inside his cell at a federal prison.

That’s not to say Trump will not benefit from Putin’s caginess and Assange’s willingness to release potentially embarrassing e-mails about Clinton, but any gains will be offset by his ongoing diatribes against any person or group who possess any sense of moderation. More than 20 Republican senators, not to mention a fair handful of Members of Congress and governors, as well as key party figures, did not attend the RNC. They have followers who will sit this election out, if not cross over and vote for Clinton.

But this nation has never before experienced such an asymmetrical campaign strategy. No one can reasonably estimate the degree of emotion, especially among voters who have stayed on the sidelines in other presidential elections, doing so out of disgust with the establishment.

Last December, I wrote an article describing Trump as America’s Putin, emphasizing the destructive synergy that could result if both men were in power. However, I concluded that Trump would not win the Republican nomination.

Boy, was I wrong. The Manchurian Candidate still has a chance.