Tag: corruption

HUD’s ‘Wastelands’

A year-long investigation by the Washington Post into the Department of Housing & Urban Development’s HOME affordable housing program uncovered systemic waste, fraud, and abuse. The tale is yet another example of why the federal government should extricate itself from housing policy and allow the states to chart their own course.

The piece is lengthy and should be read by interested readers in its entirety, so I’ll just excerpt the Post’s findings:

  • Local housing agencies have doled out millions to troubled developers, including novice builders, fledgling nonprofits and groups accused of fraud or delivering shoddy work.
  • Checks were cut even when projects were still on the drawing boards, without land, financing or permits to move forward. In at least 55 cases, developers drew HUD money but left behind only barren lots.
  • Overall, nearly one in seven projects shows signs of significant delay. Time and again, housing agencies failed to cancel bad deals or alert HUD when projects foundered.
  • HUD has known about the problems for years but still imposes few requirements on local housing agencies and relies on a data system that makes it difficult to determine which developments are stalled.
  • Even when HUD learns of a botched deal, federal law does not give the agency the authority to demand repayment. HUD can ask local authorities to voluntarily repay, but the agency was unable to say how much money has been returned.

In a Cato essay on HUD community development programs, I cite similar examples of HOME funds being wasted. And an essay on HUD scandals shows that mismanagement and corruption in federal housing programs is hardly new. Indeed, a follow-up story from the Post that focuses on related affordable housing shenanigans in the DC area explains that housing speculators who bilked HUD in the 1980s are involved in the current troubles:

All three were convicted in a scheme in the 1980s that involved getting straw buyers to purchase properties in the District at inflated prices using fraudulent appraisals. HUD backed the loans and ultimately lost millions of dollars. The Post called it the largest real estate fraud of its kind in the city’s history; about 30 people were convicted.

The response from Congress to the Post’s expose isn’t any more surprising than the findings: it’s time for a probe! This is where members of Congress point the finger at everybody else except themselves, promise to “fix” the problems, and pay lip-service to the concerns of taxpayers.

From the statement issued by Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-AL):

We are deeply concerned by these reports, particularly at a time when so many Americans are in need of affordable housing. Many communities across the country have successfully used HUD programs to create vital housing opportunities for their citizens. However, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, like any government agency, has a duty to safeguard taxpayer funds. The Committee takes its oversight responsibilities very seriously, and we plan to get to the bottom of this issue.

Republicans are having a difficult time naming federal programs to abolish, while Democrats would have us believe that only the federal government can take care of the “less fortunate.” For Republicans who are serious about spending cuts, HUD’s latest black eye offers an opportunity to challenge the existence of federal housing programs. For Democrats, well, perhaps one or two will start to question the sanctity of these programs.

The IRS: Even Worse Than You Think

Since it is tax-filing season and we all want to honor our wonderful tax system, let’s go into the archives and show this video from last year about the onerous compliance costs of the internal revenue code.

Narrated by Hiwa Alaghebandian of the American Enterprise Institute, the mini-documentary explains how needless complexity creates an added burden - sort of like a hidden tax that we pay for the supposed privilege of paying taxes.

Two things from the video are worth highlighting.

First, we should make sure to put most of the blame on Congress. As Ms. Alaghebandian notes, the IRS is in the unenviable position of trying to enforce Byzantine tax laws. Yes, there are examples of grotesque IRS abuse, but even the most angelic group of bureaucrats would have a hard time overseeing 70,000-plus pages of laws and regulations (by contrast, the Hong Kong flat tax, which has been in place for more than 60 years, requires less than 200 pages).

Second, we should remember that compliance costs are just the tip of the iceberg. The video also briefly mentions three other costs.

  1. The money we send to Washington, which is a direct cost to our pocketbooks and also an indirect cost since the money often is used to finance counterproductive programs that further damage the economy.
  2. The budgetary burden of the IRS, which is a staggering $12.5 billion. This is the money we spend to employ an army of tax bureaucrats that is larger than the CIA and FBI combined.
  3. The economic burden of the tax system, which measures the lost economic output from a tax system that penalizes productive behavior.
  4. The way to fix this mess, needless to say, is to junk the entire tax code and start all over.

    I’ve been a big proponent of the flat tax, which would mean one low tax rate, no double taxation of savings, and no corrupt loopholes. But I’m also a big fan of national sales tax proposals such as the Fair Tax, assuming we can amend the Constitution so that greedy politicians don’t pull a bait and switch and impose both an income tax and a sales tax.

    But the most important thing we need to understand is that bloated government is our main problem. If we had a limited federal government, as our Founding Fathers envisioned, it would be almost impossible to have a bad tax system. But if we continue to move in the direction of becoming a European-style welfare state, it will be impossible to have a good tax system.

Another Day in the Life of the IRS

A previous post of mine at International Liberty addressed the debate over whether Republicans should trim the IRS’s budget. The following case study should convince everyone that the answer is a resounding yes.

First, some background from a Joe Nocera column in the New York Times. The federal government made a rather troubling decision a few years ago to investigate, prosecute, and ultimately imprison a random home-loan borrower named Charlie Engle for the crime of mortgage fraud.

Mr. Engle is far from blameless in this saga, but I noted in another post that it was rather odd that the government would target a nobody while letting all the big fish swim away. This episode certainly paints a picture of a government that has one set of rules for ordinary people, but an entirely different set of rules for the political elite and those who make big campaign contributions to that ruling class.

But I also noted that I’m not a lawyer or legal expert and was unsure about the degree to which the big players actually broke laws, or whether they simply made stupid business decisions (often encouraged by bad government policy).

The most upsetting part of the story, though, is how the government wound up targeting Mr. Engle. It turns out that an IRS agent, Robert Norlander, must have been competing for the IRS’s Bully-of-the-Year Award because here are some of the things he did:

  • Norlander decided to snoop into Engle’s affairs because he saw a film about him training for a marathon. In other words, there was no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, nothing. Just the perverse decision of an IRS bully to go after someone.
  • Norlander admitted a pattern of thuggish behavior, stating that he will snoop into someone’s private life simply because that person drives an expensive car.
  • Norlander continued to investigate and persecute Engle, subjecting him to undercover surveillance, even though his tax returns showed no wrongdoing.
  • Norlander even engaged in “dumpster dives” to look for evidence of wrongdoing in Mr. Engle’s garbage. Keep in mind that there is no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, and Engle’s tax returns were legit.
  • Norlander used a sleazy KGB tactic by sending an attractive woman to flirt with Mr. Engle in hopes of getting him to somehow admit to a crime.
  • Norlander failed to find any evidence of a tax crime. He couldn’t even hit Engle with a money-laundering offense. But the undercover agent who was part of the “honey trap” was wearing a wire and supposedly got Engle to admit to mortgage fraud and Norlander used that extremely flimsy evidence to justify a Justice Department case against Engle.

In other words, this whole thing has a terrible stench. Assuming the details in the story are accurate, we have an IRS agent engaging in a random vendetta against someone, and then apparently justifying his jihad by figuring out how to nail the guy on a very weak charge of mortgage fraud. I would describe Norlander as a “rogue agent,” but apparently this behavior is business-as-usual at the IRS.

Here are the relevant passages from Nocera’s column:

Mr. Engle received $30,000 for his participation. The film, “Running the Sahara,” was released in the fall of 2008. Eventually, it caught the attention of Robert W. Nordlander, a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service. As Mr. Nordlander later told the grand jury, “Being the special agent that I am, I was wondering, how does a guy train for this because most people have to work from nine to five and it’s very difficult to train for this part-time.” (He also told the grand jurors that sometimes, when he sees somebody driving a Ferrari, he’ll check to see if they make enough money to afford it. When I called Mr. Nordlander and others at the I.R.S. to ask whether this was an appropriate way to choose subjects for criminal tax investigations, my questions were met with a stone wall of silence.) Mr. Engle’s tax records showed that while his actual income was substantial, his taxable income was quite small, in part because he had a large tax-loss carry forward, due to a business deal he’d been involved in several years earlier. (Mr. Nordlander would later inform the grand jury only of his much lower taxable income, which made it seem more suspicious.) Still convinced that Mr. Engle must be hiding income, Mr. Nordlander did undercover surveillance and took “Dumpster dives” into Mr. Engle’s garbage. He mainly discovered that Mr. Engle lived modestly. In March 2009, still unsatisfied, Mr. Nordlander persuaded his superiors to send an attractive female undercover agent, Ellen Burrows, to meet Mr. Engle and see if she could get him to say something incriminating. In the course of several flirtatious encounters, she asked him about his investments. …Unbeknownst to Mr. Engle, Ms. Burrows was wearing a wire. …No tax charges were ever brought, even though that was Mr. Nordlander’s original rationale. Money laundering, the suspicion of which was needed to justify the undercover sting, was a nonissue as well. As for that “confession” to Ms. Burrows, take a closer look. It really isn’t a confession at all. Mr. Engle is confessing to his mortgage broker’s sins, not his own.

Stories like this explain why I’m a libertarian.

As George Washington supposedly said, ”Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Unfortunately, thanks to bad laws and thuggish bureaucrats, government is definitely now our master and no longer just a servant. The IRS is a grim example of this phenomenon. President Obama, not surprisingly, wants to increase their budget.

A Routine, Run-of-the-Mill Half-Billion-Dollar Corruption Story

It may be Michael Kinsley who first said that the scandal in Washington is not what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal. Maybe a corollary is that the scandal is what people don’t even notice when it’s exposed. The Washington Post splashed a huge story of corruption across the front page of its Sunday Business section. The pull quote in the center read

A D.C. lawyer and her associates secured $500 million in federal contracts to benefit Alaska native corporations. Less than one percent made it back to Alaska.

And so far this impressive story by Robert O’Harrow Jr. has generated 4 comments, 7 tweets, 11 “likes” on Facebook, and only one other blog post that I can find. Are we so jaded that a full-page investigation of self-dealing and corruption involving affirmative action, small business, defense contracting, and complicated financial maneuvers just doesn’t get our juices flowing? And if one diligent reporter, who obviously spent a lot of time on this story, could find this much fraud by one well-connected contractor, how much could a hundred reporters find? I generally don’t think that “waste, fraud, and abuse” is the key to cutting federal spending; you have to go after the big programs, like transfer payments and military spending. But as Everett Dirksen almost said, $500 million here, $500 million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. So let me just turn the floor over to O’Harrow to tell you what he found:

For years as a lawyer in Washington, Paralee White had helped small and disadvantaged firms break into the federal contracting market.

Then she decided to help herself.

She started a business and was soon making more than $500,000 a year through a contracting program intended to help poor Alaska natives, even though she isn’t an Alaska native.

White also helped her family. She hired her sister and brother, paying them as much as $280,000 a year. She helped her sister’s boyfriend set up his own firm in partnership with Alaska natives. He made more than $500,000 a year.

White’s story offers a look at how Washington insiders can make fortunes from government programs intended to benefit small, disadvantaged and minority entrepreneurs. It also illustrates how government officials who are supposed to keep tabs on these programs often fail to do so.

White’s native partners eventually accused her and her siblings of fraud and self-dealing, saying they were paid more than the rules allowed and hid the transactions from the government. The allegations spilled out in a civil lawsuit in Alaska, and the case was quickly settled.

Although officials at the Small Business Administration say they knew about the dispute, the U.S. government has taken no action.

Over several years, White and her associates landed more than $500 million in construction contracts for the Navy and other Pentagon departments, nearly all of them through an SBA program aimed at boosting Alaska native corporations. But less than 1 percent of that money made it back to the native-owned corporations, a Washington Post investigation found.

Government officials say they were not monitoring the contracts for compliance with the rules to ensure that the natives were doing a significant portion of the work and receiving the correct share of the revenue.

In statements, Navy and Air Force officials said that responsibility fell to the SBA. But SBA spokeswoman Hayley Meadvin said her agency long ago transferred that authority to the Pentagon and other agencies.

White, 59, declined to answer questions about the contracts. In e-mails, she said the questions involve “events several years in the past and I don’t have the files or time to research or reflect on them sufficiently to give you accurate information.”

There’s more, much more. Read it all.

Tax Lawyers, Tax Complexity, and the Broader Problem of a Self-Serving Legal Profession

The Internal Revenue Code is nightmarishly complex, as illustrated by this video. Americans spend more than 7 billion hours each year in a hopeless effort to figure out how to deal with more than 7 million words of tax law and regulation.

Why does this mess exist? The simple answer is that politicians benefit from the current mess, using their power over tax laws to raise campaign cash, reward friends, punish enemies, and play politics. This argument certainly has merit, and it definitely helps explain why the political class is so hostile to a simple and fair flat tax.

But a big part of the problem is that tax lawyers dominate the tax-lawmaking process. Almost all the decision-making professionals at the tax-writing committees (Ways & Means Committee in the House and Finance Committee in the Senate) are lawyers, as are the vast majority of tax policy people at the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, some lawyers are needed if for no other reason than to figure out how new loopholes, deductions, credits, and other provisions can be integrated into Rube-Goldberg monstrosity of existing law.

But part of me has always wondered whether lawyers deliberately or subconsciously make the system complex because it serves their interests. I know many tax lawyers who are now getting rich in private practice by helping their clients navigate the complicated laws and regulations that they helped implement. For these people, the time they spent on Capitol Hill, in the Treasury, or at the IRS was an investment that enables today’s lucrative fees.

I freely admit that this is a sour perspective on how Washington operates, but it certainly is consistent with the “public choice” theory that people in government behave in ways that maximize their self interest.

There’s now an interesting book that takes a broader look at this issue, analyzing the extent to which the legal profession looks out for its own self interest. Written by Benjamin H. Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, The Lawyer-Judge Bias in the American Legal System explains that the legal profession has self-serving tendencies.

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, interviews Professor Barton about his new book.

I freely confess that I’m looking at this issue solely through my narrow prism of tax policy. But since Barton’s thesis meshes with my observations that tax lawyers benefit from a corrupt tax system, I’m sympathetic to the notion that the problem is much broader.

One of the most qoted lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI is, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” But rather than making lawyer jokes, it would be a better idea to figure out how to limit the negative impact of self-serving behavior - whether by lawyers or any other profession that might misuse the coercive power of government.

This is one of many reasons why decentralization is a good idea. If people and businesses have the freedom to choose the legal system with the best features, that restrains the ability of an interest group - including lawyers - to manipulate any one system for their private advantage. This new study by Professors Henry Butler and Larry Ribstein is a good explanation of why allowing “choice of law” yields superior results.

Taxpayers Got a Big Christmas Present Yesterday, but It Wasn’t the Tax Bill

There’s a lot of attention being paid to yesterday’s landslide vote in the House to prevent a big tax increase next year. If you’re a glass-half-full optimist, you will be celebrating the good news for taxpayers. If you’re a glass-half-empty pessimist, you will be angry because the bill also contains provisions to increase the burden of government spending as well as some utterly corrupt tax loopholes added to the legislation so politicians could get campaign cash from special interest groups.

If you want some unambiguously good news, however, ignore the tax deal and celebrate the fact that Senator Harry Reid had to give up his attempt to enact a pork-filled, $1 trillion-plus spending bill. This “omnibus appropriation” not only had an enormous price tag, it also contained about 6,500 earmarks. As I explained in the New York Post yesterday, earmarks are “special provisions inserted on behalf of lobbyists to benefit special interests. The lobbyists get big fees, the interest groups get handouts and the politicians get rewarded with contributions from both. It’s a win-win-win for everyone — except the taxpayers who finance this carousel of corruption.”

This sleazy process traditionally has enjoyed bipartisan support, and many Republican senators initially were planning to support the legislation notwithstanding the voter revolt last month. But the insiders in Washington underestimated voter anger at bloated and wasteful government. Thanks to talk radio, the Internet (including sites like this one), and a handful of honest lawmakers, Reid’s corrupt legislation suddenly became toxic.

The resulting protests convinced GOPers — even the big spenders from the Appropriations Committee — that they could no longer play the old game of swapping earmarks for campaign cash. This is a remarkable development and a huge victory for the Tea Party movement.

Here’s part of the Washington Post report on this cheerful development:

Senate Democrats on Thursday abandoned their efforts to approve a comprehensive funding bill for the federal government after Republicans rebelled against its $1.2 trillion cost and the inclusion of nearly 7,000 line-item projects for individual lawmakers.

…Instead, a slimmed-down resolution that would fund the government mostly at current levels will come before the Senate, and Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it will pass by Saturday.

…The majority leader’s surrender on the spending bill marked a final rebuke for this Congress to the old-school system of funding the government, in which the barons of the Appropriations Committee decided which states would receive tens of millions of dollars each year.

…Almost every Senate Republican had some favor in the bill, but as voter angst about runaway deficits grew before the midterm elections, Republicans turned against the earmark practice.

This is a very positive development heading into next year, but it is not a permanent victory. Some Republicans are true believers in the cause of limited government, but there are still plenty of corrupt big spenders as well as some Bush-style “compassionate conservatives” who think buying votes with other people’s money somehow makes one a caring person.

In other words, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Partiers have won an important battle, but this is just one skirmish in a long war. If we want to save America from becoming another Greece, we better make sure that we redouble our efforts next year. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Earmarks Are the Gateway Drug to Big Government Addiction

I haven’t commented much on earmarks, but an oped in today’s Washington Post was has goaded me into action. A former Reagan Administration appointee (the Gipper must be spinning in his grave), who now makes a living by selling our money to the highest bidder, made several ridiculous assertions, including:

…earmarks are largely irrelevant to balancing the budget. The $16.5 billion Congress spent on earmarks in fiscal year 2009 sounds like a lot, but leaves a minuscule footprint - about 1 percent of 2009’s $1.4 trillion deficit. Those seriously concerned about deficits should look elsewhere for meaningful spending reductions. …On Capitol Hill, party leaders must appeal to lawmakers’ interests as well as their principles to get the votes they need. The leaders must be able to offer incentives - such as earmarks - to win votes on difficult issues. Earmarks are not the only possible incentives, nor do they need to be the most compelling ones. But they are a tool for taking care of members who might otherwise stray.

The author is right that earmarks technically are not a big share of the budget. But he conveniently forgets to address the real issue, which is the degree to which earmarks are the proverbial apple in the congressional Garden of Eden. Members who otherwise might want to defend taxpayers are lured into becoming part of the problem. This is how I described the process in arecent PolitiFact article.

Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, …adds that the existence of earmarks increases the upward pressure on federal spending indirectly, since lawmakers “know they need to support the relevant powers on the spending committees in order to have their earmarks approved.” Mitchell calls earmarks a “gateway drug” that “seduces members into treating the federal budget as a good thing that can be milked for home-state/district projects.”

Since the author of the Washington Post column is trying, at least in part, to appeal to advocates of smaller government, I’m also puzzled that he says earmarks are good because they help grease the wheels so that more legislation can be passed. Does he really think reminding us about the “Cornhusker Kickback” and “Louisiana Purchase” will make us more sympathetic to his argument? Yes, it’s theoretically possible that congressional leaders will use earmarks to help pass legislation shrinking the burden of government. It’s also possible that I’ll play centerfield next year for the Yankees. But I’m not holding my breath for either of these things to happen.

Last but not least, earmarks are utterly corrupt. The fact that they are legal does not change the fact that they finance a racket featuring big payoffs to special interests, who give big fees to lobbyists (often former staffers and Members), who give big contributions to  politicians. Everyone wins…except taxpayers.

This is one of the many reasons why I did this video a couple of years ago with the simple message that big government means big corruption.