By Daniel Politi
The New York Times leads with a look at how fraud prosecutions will be coming soon to a courtroom near you. Attorneys general across the country have started to get the ball rolling, and the federal government is expected to get in on the action soon. The Washington Post leads with the Obama administration’s call to boost the International Monetary Fund’s war chest, which also came with a push to get other countries, particularly in Europe, to boost their stimulus spending. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Congress will be asked to approve $100 billion more to the IMF’s fund to help struggling nations.
The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with President Obama’s signing of what he described as an “imperfect” $410 billion omnibus spending bill that will fund most government agencies for the rest of the fiscal year. He criticized the bill for containing more than 8,500 pet projects inserted by lawmakers worth around $7.7 billion. The president said the bill should “mark an end to the old way of doing business” and outlined a set of proposals to curb earmarks in the future. The Los Angeles Times devotes its top nonlocal spot to a look at how the gunmen who killed three British security personnel over the last week in Northern Ireland may have reinforced how much the area’s residents yearn to move on from their troubled past. Thousands took to the streets yesterday to condemn the shooting and even hard-liners have spoken up against retaliation. “These attacks not only represent a setback, but they can represent an opportunity in further entrenching the peace process,” an expert on Northern Ireland said. USA Today leads with word that federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies are being swamped by job applicants, many of whom are highly experienced. The FBI has received 227,000 applications for 3,000 openings, “the largest such response in history.”
The Obama administration still hasn’t said much about its plans to file federal civil or criminal charges against financial wrongdoers, but the president’s proposed budget suggests there will be a stronger focus on the issue in the coming months. Apparently Attorney General Eric Holder is working on devising a course of action and might set up a task force to deal with all the cases. Even though it now seems common to see Wall Street executives doing a perp walk, the NYT points out that “any concerted legal attack on the financial sector would have little precedent.” In order to be successful in its prosecutions, the government would have to prove that the crisis was a direct result of law-breaking, rather than just dumb mistakes made by supposed financial wizards. Defense attorneys who specialize in white-collar clients say that it would be relatively easy for most executives to claim they were just following the industry and didn’t realize the risks involved. “We’ll all sing the stupidity song,” one lawyer said.
In a sign that the decrease in global demand is getting worse, new data from China show that exports decreased a whopping 25.7 percent in February. Geithner said it’s imperative for leading economies to work together in order to bring an end to the global crisis. The question of how the world’s leading economies should be acting to try to arrest the growing crisis is likely to produce much heated debate when the G-20 finance ministers meet outside London this weekend.
So far, European governments have been reluctant to increase their stimulus packages, leading many analysts to say that the continent’s leaders aren’t doing enough to deal with the downturn. “They are in denial, and hoping that something from the U.S. will come along to help them out,” a European economist tells the NYT. And while European governments seem open to the idea of increasing IMF funding, they disagree with the United States over how much they should give. The additional money from the United States is far from a done deal, either. It’s unclear whether Congress would support a boost in IMF funding at a time when everyone expects the administration to ask for billions more to help ailing financial institutions as well as a possible second stimulus package.
Even though earmarks account for less than 2 percent of the discretionary budget, they have become “a lightning rod for critics,” as the WP puts it, who say they illustrate how the government wastes taxpayer money. In order to curb their use, Obama said he wants lawmakers to post any earmark requests in advance on their Web sites, and agencies would be able to review them and classify proposals as inappropriate. Obama also wants all earmarks directed at a private company to be subject to competitive bidding. Republicans and Democrats alike said Obama’s efforts would have little effect unless he also promises to veto bills that carry lots of earmarks.
Besides approving the spending bill, Obama also issued his first signing statement, which declared several provisions in the bill could be ignored because they’re unconstitutional. This came a few days after Obama ordered a review of his predecessor’s signing statements and vowed to issue them only “with caution and restraint.”
The NYT and WP front a look at the events that led up to Charles Freeman Jr. removing his name from consideration to chair the National Intelligence Council. The NYT notes that the White House was surprised when it learned that Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, would be appointed to such a high-level position, and administration officials worried the selection would lead to an unnecessary controversy. When he withdrew, Freeman didn’t mince words and characterized himself as a victim of “the Israel Lobby.” As soon as his name was floated, many bloggers attacked the selection due to his past criticism of Israel as well as some statements about China that Freeman insists were taken out of context. Although only a few Jewish organizations publicly came out against Freeman, the WP notes that “a handful of pro-Israeli bloggers and employees of other organizations worked behind the scenes” to raise complaints about the appointments with key lawmakers, who then pressured the White House to resolve the issue. Freeman said he withdrew out of fear that he would “be used as an excuse … to disparage the quality and credibility of the intelligence.”
The WP points out that U.S. media weren’t alone in paying little attention to Tuesday’s attack in Iraq that killed 33 people. “In 2003, when America began its occupation, bombings with half the casualties of Tuesday’s suggested the United States might not prevail,” writes the WP‘s Anthony Shadid. Yesterday, the government newspaper didn’t even put the news on its front page. “No one values the victims anymore,” a relative of one of the victims said. It’s all part of the odd way of life in Iraq, where “hundreds of people still die every month, even as a sense of the ordinary returns,” notes the Post.
The NYT takes a look at how the grass-mud horse has become the latest Internet sensation in China. The mythical creature, which was created as a little protest against government censorship, is what “passes as subversive behavior” in China. A music video that tells the story of the grass-mud horse’s victory over invading “river crabs” may sound and read like an innocent-enough fable, but “their spoken names were double entendres with inarguably dirty second meanings.” The “grass-mud horse” sounds like an insult in Chinese, as does the desert where these alpacalike animals live. Meanwhile, the “river crab” that invades the desert sounds a lot like “harmony,” which has become a code word for Internet censorship. As is usually the case with these types of stories, it’s a little confusing to understand what on earth the NYT is talking about since it doesn’t want to offend readers’ sensibilities by publishing the “inarguably dirty second meanings.” But this time TP can’t really criticize since even he is uncomfortable typing the double-meaning of Ma Lee Desert. Luckily, the China Digital Times has published an uncensored guide to the song.
In the NYT‘s op-ed page, William Cohan writes that it’s about time “to debunk the myths” that many Wall Street executives want the public to believe about how the financial crisis occurred. These “tall tales” usually imply the Wall Street firms were “victims” of a “once-in-a-lifetime tsunami,” when in reality many top bankers “made decision after decision, year after year, that turned their firms into houses of cards.” Confidence in the country’s banking system won’t return “until Wall Street comes clean,” writes Cohan. “If the executives responsible for what happened won’t step forward on their own, perhaps a subpoena-wielding panel along the lines of the 9/11 commission can be created to administer a little truth serum.”