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SkyNews Debate and Gun Control

Each week on the SkyNews Debate, the Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and I go toe-to-toe on issues that the producers back in London choose with audience interest and provocation in mind.

This week, (June 25) I felt we disgracefully gave airtime to Larry Pratt and his irrational and singularly idiotic views on gun control.

As I say in the program, I believe that listening to the drivel and hate he spews forth actually makes him the poster boy FOR gun control. Luckily, we also had the wonderful and brilliant Professor Chip Gallagher from LaSalle University talking about facts that the gun control wingnuts don't want the public to know.

And Armstrong had his hands full there.

Before the program began, I wrote an "editorial" showing my disgust at Pratt and his views, and my displeasure with him using our airtime. I asked the producers to let me read it in full, and they agreed.

Shamefully, Niall Paterson, sitting in for Martin Stanford as host, interrupted before I could finish, and I didn't hide my anger.

So I have reprinted here, word for word, the views I wanted and needed to express, uninterruptedly.

"Putting Mr. Pratt into perspective... over the past eight months or so that we have been doing this show, there have been guests I have disagreed with, at times vehemently. But we have never had as appalling and repulsive a guest as this man.

"Gun Owners of America is a radical, right wing, conspiracy-theory loving group he founded because he believed that the radical, right wing, conspiracy-theory loving National Rifle Association was not radical, right wing and conspiracy-theory loving enough.

"Throughout the years he has been associated in various ways with white supremacist groups, anti-Semitic groups, and survivalists and believes that “Second Amendment Rights” is all about owning enough fire power to create South American rebel-style militias... Guatemala-like death squads... capable of over-throwing the government... especially a government run by a black, socialist, communist, anti-gun, abortion loving, gay marriage loving, illegally installed president who was obviously born in Kenya.

"His statements in the wake of the massacres... of the premeditated murders of innocent people... are more than just distasteful, they are abhorrent and repugnant.

"This is a man who, after the sandy hook elementary school shootings, put the blame entirely on gun control advocates saying that they "have the blood of little children on their hands."

"He denies reality. In so doing, I actually think he is THE poster boy for gun control.

"And while he has every right to express his views, I have every right to be nauseated by them.

"And by him.

"Because, I believe, it is impossible to have an intelligent, meaningful discussion with just any old psychotic fool, I refuse to engage him. I refuse to dignify his appearance here. I refuse to justify his existence.

"I will say no more, except to add that his last name would be spelled with one t."

*****

(c) Jeffrey Robinson 2015

Here is the link to the show: http://news.sky.com/video/1507905/gun-ownership-why-so-many-deaths

Bitcoin’s Overblown Wall Street Debut - THE DAILY BEAST

As Seen in The Daily Beast - 5/20/2015

(c) Jeffrey Robinson

 

At first glance, it looks like it’s been a pretty good spring for the folk who would have the world believe that the virtual currency bitcoin is finally happening, especially where it matters most, on Wall Street.

In March, a New York-based start up called Noble Markets did a deal with NASDAQ to help create a bitcoin trading platform. The hope is that this will reinforce bitcoin’s legitimacy.

Next, the NASDAQ announced a full blown experiment using bitcoin (there’s bitcoin and there’s Bitcoin, but we’ll get to that in a moment) to run a tiny market for initial public offerings (IPOs). The hope is that it is more efficient and less costly than the backroom work currently done on paper by hand.

 

Finally, this week, the NYSE announced the launch of a bitcoin price index. It intends publish the daily U.S. dollar value of bitcoin in its—usually paid for by subscription—Global Index Feed (GIF).

However, as with all things bitcoin, what you see is not necessarily what you get.

*****

In 2008, someone, or some people, calling himself/themselves Nakamoto Satoshi published a white paper on an obscure cryptography mailing list describing a decentralized, trustless system for transferring value. Seven years later, there is Bitcoin the blockchain (capital B, essentially a new kind of software database) and bitcoin (small b, a volatile virtual currency, essentially backed by thin air).

That database is a real-time, permanent, indelible ledger of assets being bought and sold, much like a bank or credit card statement, except that it’s set in stone. Once an entry is made, it cannot be edited or erased. It is there, and visible, forever.

To avoid any possibility of manipulation, before a transaction is recorded, it is broadcast on a worldwide peer-to-peer network of independently operated computers.

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John is sending money from his bitcoin wallet (account) to Mary’s bitcoin wallet.

To prove the transaction has been completed—known as “Proof of Work”—the computer owners on the peer-to-peer network, who are known as “miners,” must compete with each other to bundle a group of similar transactions into a chain and then add them as a block, which is an entry on the ledger. The first miner to do it—he manages it by solving an enormously difficult mathematical problem—is rewarded with a prize of newly “mined” bitcoins. Currently it is 25 bitcoins, worth $232 each, for a total of $5,800.

If it sounds complicated, it is. Made all the more confusing by the hype, misinformation, spin, outright lies and snake oil salesmen that populate the eco-system.

Granted, Bitcoin, the technology, has been exciting some serious folk in finance for the past few years. But bitcoin, the virtual currency, is traded in a paper thin market that is easily manipulated, not to mention having quickly become the coin of the realm for illegal activities in the dark web. It is also the money of Internet gambling sites, but not much else.

The bitcoin faithful claim there are now more than 100,000 businesses around the world “accepting” bitcoin. But, Coinometrics in the UK, a think tank that looks at these figures unemotionally, notes that there only around 1,000 bitcoin transactions a day involve the buying and selling of goods and services, meaning that virtually none of those businesses regularly sees bitcoins.

The faithful also boast of 8 million bitcoin wallets, without explaining that wallets does not equate to people, and most of those wallets are empty. Coinometrics, again, reports that the actual number of wallets holding more than one bitcoin is around 250,000, which translates to less than 250,000 people. That means there are fewer people around the world holding bitcoins than there are members of the Kuwait Airways frequent flier club.

As a currency, bitcoin can’t stand toe to toe with the non-convertible Cuban peso. Weighted against real currencies, bitcoin barely comes in a distant second to the Uzbekitan som

With that in mind, a closer look at the three recently announced bitcoin deals puts them into a different perspective.

Noble Markets CEO John Betts has announced that his company’s involvement with NASDAQ should nullify doubters’ concerns that trading in the virtual currency is risky. His exact quote was, “They can say, ‘These are sophisticated organizations; they have done their due diligence, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.’”

It mirrors the same marketing ploy that makes teenagers believe that if they buy Air Jordans, they will be able to jump like Michael.

Reached by phone in New York, Betts is slightly more circumspect. “The last five years were about the proof of concept,” he told The Daily Beast. “The next five years are about rolling out adoption. And the next five years are about building the killer apps. If you look at the timeline of the Internet, it’s the same thing.”

It worked with the Internet, ergo it will work with bitcoin. That’s a frequently heard argument justifying bitcoin.

Meantime, at the NYSE, while other price indices listed on its Global Index Feed are compiled from multiple sources, at least for the time being, the GIF is publishing what the San Francisco-based bitcoin exchange Coinbase decides the price is.

Not by coincidence, earlier this year, Intercontinental Exchange—parent company of the NYSE—invested in Coinbase. Is the GIF listing bitcoin’s price really any different than Whole Foods postering their windows with the price of chicken? It certainly has never done much for chickens.

The one to watch is the NASDAQ experiment.

One news story heralded the announcement with, “Bitcoin is inching closer to legitimacy.” Except, it’s the blockchain that’s inching closer to legitimacy at the expense of the currency.

Each bitcoin is broken down into minute pieces known as “satoshis.” (For the record, there are 100 million satoshis in a single bitcoin, which makes each one of them effectively worthless.) But, by attaching a piece of data to it, saying, this represents one share of stock in a company, the sale of the share can be verified by the miners and successfully recorded on the blockchain.

Ideally, not having anything to do with the currency or the miners would be a better still. Consider that most of the bitcoin mining is done in China. Which is why other companies, such as Eris, have come up with a variation on the theme, called “smart contracts.” This allows banks and finance companies to stay in dollars, sterling, euros, etc., and also eliminates the risk of anonymous miners or other bad actors possibly interfering.

As Tim Swanson, one of the most respected observers and bloggers (OfNumbers) on bitcoin, has observed, “No bank’s going to want to put a billion dollars of value (on a ledger) if it can be destroyed by anonymous validators (miners).”

There are also projects in the works to create closed, or centralized, blockchains, which are based on the premise that banks moving money between themselves can trust each other and, therefore, no proof of work is required. In this case, the blockchain eliminates backroom costs without any exposure to bitcoins and miners.

If the NASDAQ experiment succeeds, a worthless bitcoin world might be the future.

If the NASDAQ experiment fails, smart contracts and no proof of work blockchains will undoubtedly fill the void.

In either case, as far as Wall Street will be concerned, the currency comes off second best.

A Personal Farewell To Elaine Stritch

The actress and entertainer Elaine Stritch passed away on July 17, at home in Detroit, at the age of 89. I met her in London in 1981 and wrote this backpage feature on her in the International Herald Tribune. She was a hoot.
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August 18, 1981

Elaine Stritch: The Discipline of Comedy

By Jeffrey Robinson
International Herald Tribune

LONDON — She came home to The Savoy Hotel, where she’s been living for the past 11 years, after having lunch with Prince Charles. It was the first time they’d met. “I love the way he walks. God, he moves so well. If he had a different face he could be a gangster.”

And while she came away from a meal with the future king of Britain talking about him, it’s not too outlandish to imagine that the prince came away from that meal talking about her. Elaine Stritch might be many Britons’ favorite American.

Detroit-born and Broadway trained, she’s been wooing British audiences since Noel Coward insisted that she come to the West End in the 1960s. “He really had to talk me into coming here. He bought me a red-leather, gold-tooled passport case, then took me to lunch and had three violinists play ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ in my ear until my mind blew. Now London is home.”

Since moving to Britain she has not only stayed on the boards but has also starred in a pair of BBC television comedies. “Two’s Company” ran for five years. “Nobody’s Perfect” is currently on the tube – the English version of the U.S. hit show “Maude.”

“Very frankly,” she said, in the voice that has been described as corncake wading through bourbon on the rocks, “I hate sit-coms. They’re so hard to make real. The clock is always against you. There are only 26 minutes and you have to spend them fighting for your life.”

She started in the theater, and despite roles in films such as “A
Farewell To Arms” and in television series, her reputation, primarily as a comedian, is based on stage performances in hits the likes of “The Little Foxes,” “Pal Joey,” “Bus Stop,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The King and I,” “Any Wednesday,” “Private Lives” and “Mame.”

‘Such Make-Believe’

“My first love is the theater. A live audience. It’s all such make-believe. You do a play eight times a week and when you get up in the morning you have that wonderful feeling, because you can play in it again that night. Really great actiong is effortless, but comedy is so hard because it requires a much more disciplined life. I love to make people laugh. Lots of people can stand on a stage and scream or holler. But I want to make the whole world laugh. That’s some goal, isn’t it?”

At 55, she knows how the theater can also take its toll. “When you’re doing a play, your whole life is geared to that evening’s curtain call. There’s no time or energy for anything else. When you’re young, that’s terribly exciting. When you get older it turns your life upside down. You sleep at the wrong times. You eat at the wrong times. It’s all ass-backwards. Yet I do it every chance I get.”

But she added: “I won’t let it control me. Sure, I love to stand up on a stage and think to myself, ‘Hah, I’m fooling ‘em.’ That’s what acting is. An actress should fool people. But if you take it too seriously and if you start fooling yourself, it’s a killer. Look what it’s done to Marlon Brando. What I love to see is an actress like Katy Hepburn who’s got it all figured out. She’s got a lifestyle apart from being an actress.”

After a convent school education, Stritch went to New York in the 1940s, wanting to be a star. “One nun at school once told my mother that I was a born leader, except that I was leading all the other girls in the wrong direction. I had my first whiskey sour when I was 14, and thought, ‘God, I’ve found a friend.’ It was only a few years ago, when I thought our friendship was getting too steady, that I gave it up.

“In spite of that, when I went to New York I was a very innocent girl. At drama school I fell in love with Marlon Brando. Who didn’t? He went through the class like a dose of salts and left me for last.”

She said Brando poured on his charm by taking her to a library, a church and a strip show, “in that order,” then to his room. “I was so naive that he eventually said, ‘Go home,’ and I did.”

‘Poetic Justice’

Married late in life (to the American actor John Bay, who has been doing a one-man revue based on Groucho Marx), Stritch said she is still something of a little girl from convent school. “I pray sometimes, and the thing I pray about most is faith. Sometimes I go to bed at night and think, maybe this is it. Maybe there is nothing else.

“So I pray because I really want to see poetic justice have its day. I don’t pray that I’ll win the pools or that my shows will be good. Nope, I pray that someday everybody will get there due. Everyone should get the reward. And the bastards of this world should get kicked in the ass.”

Stretch has just finished a book that will be published in Britain later this year by Granada. “Two Shots a Day” has to do with diabetes.

“I’ve been a diabetic for the past 3½ years and I feel that as long as I have a forum, I must try to explain some things about diabetes to a lot of people who might not otherwise understand.

“Things could be worse. A lot of people are afraid of diabetes. I look at it as a challenge. I want people to understand the diabetes is not the end of the world, that diabetes can be treated. I mention diabetes once in an interview and started getting so many letters, you’d think I was Liz Taylor. So now I written a book to answer all those questions.”

She added: “My insulin comes with me wherever I go and I don’t give a damn where I am or whom I’m with. When it comes time for my shot, nothing stops me. Like the night I was at a club and it was time for my shot, so I offed to the ladies room. My slacks were down, my needle was out and I was already to jab myself when a woman walked in and stop dead in her tracks.

“She stared at me. I stared at her. God only knows what she was thinking. I might have explained, except that she blurted out, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ Well, what the hell are you supposed to doing a case like that? I dropped the needle and right there, with my slacks still down, I signed my name.”

HOW ABOUT KILLING OFF THE $100 BILL?

NPR ran a story in August 2014 about a report coming out of Harvard suggesting that the United States kill off the $100 bill.

Here’s the NPR story, and my response.

============================================

NPR:

Of all the U.S. currency in the world, nearly 80 percent is in $100 bills. That’s about a trillion dollars.

Some people want to get rid of the bill altogether. Ken Rogoff, an economist at Harvard University, says the $100 bill :

“Think about countries like Mexico, Colombia, where they’re really at war with the drug money, where the United States is not only buying the drugs but it’s providing this resource that very much helps the drug dealers.”

Richard Stratton is a former drug smuggler who benefited from the $100 bill. In one deal, Stratton brought 15,000 pounds of hashish into the U.S. But the $50 million deal left Stratton with a problem: He had to get all that cash out of the country and into his bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. Hundreds made the job easier.

And drug dealers aren’t the only ones that use $100s. Human traffickers, weapons dealers and all kinds of criminals love the bill.

But there’s also a good side to the popularity of $100s. The note is popular with ordinary people around the world who can’t trust their government or banks. About 20 years ago, the Federal Reserve saw vast sums of currency, especially in the form of $100 bills, leaving the country.

“At some point, Alan Greenspan said, ‘So, you know, how much is it?’ ” says Ruth Judson, an economist at the Fed. “And people didn’t know the answer. And we just thought that we should know the answer to a question like that.”

Judson spent years traveling around the world with a team of Secret Service agents and Treasury officials. They tried to map where all the $100s were. She says they found that as much as two-thirds of the currency was overseas.

Today, more than half a trillion dollars’ worth of $100 bills are overseas.

But Judson is not convinced that the U.S. needs to kill the $100 bill. After all her traveling and sleuthing, she says, the Fed still doesn’t know how much of the money is being used for good and how much is being used for bad.

===================================

 

HERE'S MY RESPONSE:

The idea of taking notes out of circulation is not new. After all, there once were $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 bills, but the US stopped circulating them in 1969. The Mint last printed a $2 bill in 2003.

 If you did away with the $100, you would have to up production of the $50 and also, drastically, the $20 because I recently heard that $20 bill production is currently at a 30-year low.

 There would be further complications in that something like 2/3rds of all US currency circulates outside the US, creating a huge problem when it comes to recall.

 That said, if you did away with the $100, you would hurt the drug traffickers who have stuffed tons of them under their mattresses.

 But then, a similar scheme was contemplated back in the 1980s, with the $20.

 Here is an excerpt about that from my money laundering book, THE LAUNDRYMEN (© Jeffrey Robinson)

 Because the underground economy functions almost exclusively with dollars, the Reagan administration radically proposed a way to render the traffickers’ dollar mountains useless. They were going to change the color of money. In those days, the United States was the only country in the world whose currency was both the same size and the same color in all denominations. Reagan’s idea was to announce on a Monday morning that within seven days green $20, $50 and $100 bills would no longer be considered legal tender. Instead the government would be issuing newly designed banknotes, perhaps bigger, perhaps smaller, perhaps yellow, red or blue. All anyone would have had to do was walk into a bank and exchange the old notes for the new notes. But any cash transaction over $1000 would be recorded and the information would be passed on to the IRS and the DEA. For the average person it wouldn’t have been anything more than a nuisance. Even if someone always carried a few thousand dollars in his pocket, making the switch would take only a few minutes. But it could cripple a drug dealer with several million in cash hidden under his mattress. Swapping thousands of old $20s, $50s and $100s for the new money in such a short period of time, even using an army of smurfs, would be out of the question. And once the week was up, his cash mountain would be worthless.

 The DEA even suggested that government might print two types of currency. One would be legal tender exclusively inside the country, the other would be legal tender exclusively outside the country. The only place the two would be interchangeable would be at specially controlled financial institutions. At least in theory, that should put an end to dollar smuggling.

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For what it’s worth, this is where you’ll find the Kindle version of THE LAUNDRYMEN: amzn.to/1m3fZGr

 Obviously, recalling the $20 bill didn’t happen. Recalling the $100 probably won’t.

 However, the $100 bill is the least offensive of all the big denominations in the world. Number one reprobate is the €500 note.

 For my take on that, I hope this amuses you, from a speech in Berlin.

Jeffrey Robinson - Money Laundering and the 500 Euro Note

 

They're Going to Bury My Newspaper

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a newspaper and I fell in love...

REPRINTED FROM: THE COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW MAY-JUNE 2013  

The Back Page A feature writer at the erstwhile International Herald Tribune remembers the glory days, when presses were on the premises and the paper left ink on your hands

 

 

They’re going to bury my newspaper.

The International Herald Tribune is dead.

Once upon a time, this wonderful, irreverent, and forever-iconic, six-days-a-week, Paris-based broadsheet was cherished by Americans in Europe. With the IHT, being away from home didn’t mean being cut off from home. This fall, The New York Times, which owns the paper, is taking down the masthead and turning it into the The Global Edition of the New York Times.

It doesn’t make sense. If you want what the Times has to offer, you can have it on the Web. Why would anyone from Lubbock, Texas, who finds herself in Lubbock, Germany, care about The New York Times? There are already plenty of people in New York who don’t care about it.

One of the last of the great journalistic legacies is soon to be a vacant lot.

Born as the Paris Herald in 1887, the paper was the lovechild of the man who then owned the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett Jr. The lunatic son of a legendary American newspaperman, Bennett headed for Europe after socially disgracing himself in New York and settled in Paris, which has always been a fine place to be the family’s black sheep.

His timing was perfect. Wealthy Americans were flocking to Paris to buy art, to dress in the latest fashions, to eat the food, and to soak up the culture of a city they considered to be the most sophisticated in the world. While the British built London for the British, the French had built Paris for the world.

Some of us have never been able to get enough.

Seeing a niche, Bennett reinvented his New York paper in Europe to cater to the tastes of wealthy American travelers and expatriates. He stressed names and news, told stories you couldn’t find anywhere else, brought Linotype and comic strips across the Atlantic, raced his early editions by Mercedes to the Channel so they could be sold quickly in England (he eventually flew them, making the IHT the first truly international newspaper). He even highlighted sporting events on the front page.

He set a tone of impertinence that characterized the IHT for more than a century.

The paper, when I came to know it in the early 1970s, was housed in a grubby office block at 21 rue de Berri, just off the Champs-Élysées in the 8th Arrondissement. Newsweek’s Paris bureau was on the third floor. The printing presses were in the basement.

To be honest, calling that building grubby doesn’t come close. The paint on the walls had long ago flaked off. The building probably had an elevator—I’m almost sure there was one—but no one in their right mind would have trusted it. Not that the stairs were any better. None of the steps were parallel with the floor.

There was a horseshoe editors’ desk, manned by old salts wearing shirt garters, none of whom could be bothered to hide their bottle of booze in some desk drawer. Drawers didn’t close, anyway, because the wood was so warped with age. The furniture was mostly broken, all of the typewriters had seen better days, and the place stank of smoke—cigarette, cigar, and pipe.

The staff wasn’t very big, and then not everybody was there all the time. If you couldn’t find someone, the first place you checked was the bar across the street at the Hotel Californie.

The editor was a rough-and-ready character named Murray Weiss (everyone called him Buddy) —who’d started at the New York Herald Tribune as a copy boy just after World War II and worked at every desk in the building — then moved to Paris to run the IHT from 1966 to 1979 like Patton’s army. Buddy liked writers, especially young writers, and he was always extremely nice to me. As I recall, his wife worked there too, which wasn’t uncommon. Just about everybody seemed to be married to, or divorced from, or married again to, everybody else.

Although I was based in the south of France, one of the great treats of Paris was coming up to that office and mooching an impromptu invitation to dinner. The paper didn’t go to bed until late, so food at 7:30 meant plenty of time afterward to get the paper out. On the best of those visits, someone would announce, “We need a back page,” and someone else would say, “The kid’s here,” and I’d be directed to a half-broken desk with a mostly-broken, infinitely uncomfortable swivel chair and told, “Half an hour.”

Everyone seemed to be shouting at the same time—well, mostly cursing at the same time—and deadlines were always too short. I vaguely recall a deadline bell. Manual typewriters clanked and phones rang. It was what a newspaper office is supposed to sound like.

Most of the time, once copy was handed in, I’d get ignored. I’d already been fed, I’d written, and there was no further use for me. But sometimes, on really good nights, someone would take me downstairs into the basement to watch the first edition roll off the press. They’d let me yank my own copy from the conveyor belt and there it was: my story, still warm, like a fresh-baked baguette.

Best of all, there was ink on my hands.

Sadly, progress took its toll. When the IHT moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, the old building was sold and the name on the front of it taken down.

Somehow the editors coped.

I never could.

The new office was open-plan, with a few private, glass-walled rooms along the side, and no booze anywhere to be seen. There might have been a news desk, I don’t remember. Everyone was just someone else in just another cubicle. The place had the pall of an insurance office.

Not long after the move, I had an as-yet-unfiled story, which someone said they could use. But now the copy deadline was early, like 6 or 7—they were printing all over Europe and had to worry about the Far East edition, too—which meant no more lazy dinners. It also meant no more manual typewriters. Someone sat me down in front of a word processor for the very first time, and I hated it.

When I finally finished, instead of carrying the copy to a desk, and getting a grunt from some guy with gin breath, I merely pushed a button. And that was that. I never saw the story again until it appeared on the back page the following morning.

It just didn’t feel right.

There was no ink.

There were, however, still some great characters. Mike Zwerin knew more about jazz than just about anyone in Europe. And Hebe Dorsey was the first to critique fashion like a Broadway play. The fact that I never saw her smoke stogies and swig bourbon might only be because I wasn’t always watching.

Then there was Dick Roraback. He was a terrific guy who’d been an editor there for years and wrote all sorts of offbeat stuff. I remember one piece he did about crossing the Danish border without his passport. All he had to prove that he was him was his American Express card. Dick wrote funny, and when the IHT wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Stanley finding Livingstone, they sent him.

It was Bennett who, in 1869, had dispatched the New York Herald’s best reporter, Henry Stanley, to investigate the disappearance in Africa of the Scottish medical missionary Dr. David Livingstone. Two years later, Stanley located the long-missing man on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. That’s where Stanley supposedly said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Truth be told, he almost certainly didn’t say that. Dick’s centenary version of the encounter ran as a double-truck spread—two facing pages—in the middle of the paper, over five days. At least I seem to remember it as five days. Maybe it was only three. Still, it was a lot of space for one story. No paper would dare consider such a thing today. But that’s what the IHT did.

It was a paper that loved writers and writing.

The two big stars in my day were Mary Blume and Waverley Root.

Mary was the great ghost of the IHT, because she never came into the office and few people could claim sightings of her. She would phone in her idea and send her copy over by messenger. She might have been the best crisp, clear writer the IHT ever had.

My problem was that I became her shadow. I was the one they called when Mary didn’t want to write the story. Too often, I had to force a polite grin through disappointing wails of, “But we thought Mary Blume was covering this.”

I admired her enormously, although I never met her. I once suggested we have lunch. She politely declined. I never held it against her, because no one else at the paper—at least no one I knew—ever had lunch with her, either.

I did, however, know Waverley. We spoke on the phone every now and then—he was in a wheelchair and never left his apartment—and although he habitually refused guests, I was invited to visit.

Once.

More people have won the Nobel Prize for Literature than had an audience at home with the elderly Waverley Root. He looked like Santa Claus, with one of those great white beards and wonderfully smiling eyes, but wrote much better than Old Saint Nick. Or, for that matter, most people.

Whenever he appeared on the back page, it was always a gem. Often it was something charmingly obscure about food, like why no one in France grew lime. But then there was his masterpiece. “I Never Knew Hemingway,” a perfect essay about being the only journalist in Paris during the 1920s who was honest enough to admit that.

The back page, where Mary and Waverley and I wrote, was prime real estate. In the middle of the page, there was a box, 850 to 900 words long, about anything and everything. This was center stage at Carnegie Hall.

Below the fold were the IHT’s not-to-be-missed classified ads—Americans selling dodgy cars, Americans with overpriced apartments for rent, and hookers looking for dates.

Above the fold, there was the gossipy People Column on the right side, and a humor column on the left side. That’s where Art Buchwald was and where every Thanksgiving they reran his classic “Le Jour de Merci Donnant“—his translation of thanks and giving—and why, for one day a year, Americans eat better than the French.

From the time I moved to the south of France in late 1970, I’d been writing 650-word features for the Christian Science Monitor. In those days, the CSM was one of the five papers read in the Oval Office, with news bureaux all over Europe. I had my first front-page byline with them, chasing Henry Kissinger all over Paris during the Vietnam War peace talks. They paid me $35 per story, and added $5 for a photo. My rent, with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, was $72 a month.

Then along came the IHT, offering $75 a pop. It was a no-brainer. Not just because of the money, but because it was the IHT.

Over the next 10 years, I wrote hundreds of back-page features for them, and developed my own form, using quotes the way television does, without the usual “he said” attribution. Now it’s done all the time. I probably didn’t invent it, but I made it mine. I also, eventually, got my rate all the way up to $100.

My byline appeared from all over Europe, from various places in North America and from as far afield as Australia and Tahiti. I wrote about artists, pickpockets, addicted gamblers, world-championship Monopoly players, a woman who once posed for Modigliani, and the jazz great Earl “Fatha” Hines. I interviewed Richard Boone (he was fantastic), Graham Greene (he was lonely), Anthony Burgess (delightfully nuts), Andy Warhol (he took pictures of me taking pictures of him), Carmen McRae, Lino Ventura, Bobby Short and Walter Cronkite. (I told Walter that his retirement from the CBS Evening News meant the world would never be the same, and when I bumped into him in New York shortly before he died, I reminded him of that and he said, “You were right.”)

I wrote about counterfeit stamps, hidden wine cellars, obscure museums where the public wasn’t welcome, and Italian train bandits. I interviewed Elaine Stritch, Natalie Cole, Art Carney, Carl Reiner, Henry Moore, and Cary Grant (I asked him if he got laid a lot and he assured me he did). I even got to have lunch with Richard Burton, and when I asked him what he wanted to drink, he said, “Anything, sweetheart, as long it floats an ice cube.”

And then, one day, it ended.

No one said goodbye. There was no handshake. I’m not sure if anyone even noticed. It was 1982. I left France for England to write books. By then, the IHT was desperate to become a serious business newspaper, to do battle with the newly arrived Wall Street Journal European Edition.

No one there today remembers me, or what the IHT and I shared. Waverley is gone. Mary has moved on. Mike and Hebe and Buddy are gone. So is Dick.

Intellectually, I understand why the NYT has turned off the life support machine. But I will never forgive them for doing that.

They’re going to bury my newspaper.

The International Herald Tribune is dead.

So what if I was just another one of her suitors?

Mon amour, we’ll always have the rue de Berri.

 

SWISS TO RETURN ABACHA MONEY --- FINALLY

It’s been announced that the Swiss will return some of the stolen money that Nigeria’s former strongman, General Sani Abacha, had hidden with the gnomes more than a decade ago. Abacha and his family, along with his bankers, were confident that Switzerland’s secret baking regime would protect them and their assets, forever.

And to a large extent, that’s always been the case when it comes to the Swiss and their more dubious clients. For the same nation that has given the world cheese with holes, chocolate and cuckoo clocks, it is secret banking that has turned into the goose that continues to lay golden eggs.

And no amount of international ire is going to make them give that up.

As a nation of bankers banking on secrecy, they constantly decry the existence of dirty money, only to be caught with it time after time. At which time, as a nation of bankers who show no shame when it comes to gross hypocrisy, they insist that current regulations are sufficient to keep it from happening — at least, until the next time.

They actually insist, with a straight face, that they are more than willing to cooperate with other nations in hunting down and repatriating such assets.

Which, time after time, proves to be utter crap.

The Swiss will walk to the altar, but know better than to utter the vows.

In the Abacha case, it only took them 14 years to make the decision to do the right thing. True to the duplicitous nature of Swiss banking, they brag about how well they cooperate with the international community in the return of questionable assets. See, we’re returning the Abacha money. What they don’t say is the obvious — that it took so long because they simply ran out of any even-semi-reasonable excuse to keep it.

Add that to the list of other things they’re not saying, such as how they allowed the money to come under Swiss authority in the first place. They put the blame entirely on Citibank’s International Private Banking (IPB), rather than 1) their lack of any serious controls to keep stolen assets out of the country; 2) the blind eye that Swiss bankers had to turn in order to handle these funds; and 3) a blatantly oblivious (and for profit) attitude towards international agreements on the assets of Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs.)

As always, the Swiss banking authorities dress themselves in virginal white wedding gowns, hoping no one will notice that they are, as they have always been, nothing more than street corner hookers.

This is an excerpt from my book, The Sink, on the Abacha monies.

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It was business as usual for IPB when Nigeria’s General Abacha showed up with government funds in his pocket.

A career soldier and civil servant all his life, in 1988 Abacha had dispatched his oldest sons, Ibrahim and Mohammed to begin a relationship with IPB New York. A shell was created, called Morgan Procurement, and three accounts were opened in code names. Among them were Gelsobella for the account in New York and Navarrio for the account in London.

Oddly, the IPB “relationship manager” who handled the accounts later claimed that he didn’t have any idea that Ibrahim and Mohammed were related to General Abacha — a man recognized on the world stage for his audacious brutality — and wouldn’t become aware of that fact for nearly three years. It was only after the Abacha family relationship with IPB ended that documentation came to light suggesting that, at least, one IPB officer knew who his clients were. The bank’s paperwork read: “Father of Ibrahim and Mohammed, General Sani Abacha, is the current military ruler of Nigeria, where there is a lot of corruption.”

Seizing power, Abacha dissolved all political parties in Nigeria, forbade demonstrations against the new regime, censored the media and locked up a people who opposed him. Instead of canceling the account then and there, IPB did business with the Abachas for 11 years and helped them move $110 million through accounts in New York, London and Jersey.

It must be said that Citibank was not the Abachas only bank. Twenty different banks in Switzerland held more than 140 Abacha accounts. A substantial portion of the funds located there arrived after the 1998 Swiss money laundering codes were put into law. Those codes had been held up to the rest of the world by the Swiss themselves as proof positive that the bad old days of dirty money were over, that money stolen by dictators was no longer welcome in Switzerland.

Sani Abacha died in June 1998, apparently of a heart attack. He was 54. A best-estimate has it that he stole $4.3 billion, some $2.3 billion of it directly from the national treasury. The remaining two billion came in from government contracts he put through his own shell companies and bribes from foreign contractors. Shortly after his death, his widow Mariam was stopped at Lagos airport trying to leave for Saudi Arabia. She said she was going to the Hajj. Her 38 suitcases were filled with cash. Reports vary on the amounts involved, ranging from $50 million-$100 million.

Around the same time, Mohammed Abacha contacted IPB in London and asked that $39 million held in his account there be sent to three different accounts outside the UK. But that money was on time deposit and wouldn’t come due for another two weeks. Mohammed clearly sensed the urgency of the matter and urged Citibank London to find a way around the time lock. IPB responded favorably by offering Mohammed an interest free overdraft of $39 million. IPB had it secured against the money on deposit, and Mohammed Abacha got his $39 million out of the country. Unfortunately for him, when Mohammed returned home he was arrested and charged with murder in connection with the death of the wife of one of his father’s political opponents. He was promptly locked up.

The man who succeeded Sani Abacha, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, now went to all of his predecessor’s cronies and demanded that they return whatever money they’d got from him. He collected $770 million and confiscated some property. He made good on his promise to call elections and another former general, Olusegun Obasanjo — who’d been a political prisoner under Abacha — became president in May 1999. It was Obasanjo who intensified the international efforts to reclaim Abacha money.

By then, Credit Suisse Private Banking had discovered Abacha accounts holding $232 million. The Swiss Federal Banking Commission (SFBC) ordered a search of all banks in the country and in October put a freeze on Abacha accounts at five other banks.

In January 2000, the Swiss police announced that a total of $645 million had now been identified and frozen. Although a Swiss judge would later unblock $115 of that. Six banks were reprimanded by the SFBC for serious omissions and individual failures in handling the Abacha accounts. Another six were castigated for discernible weaknesses in their controls. And six Swiss bank personnel were actually convicted for money laundering and other offences over the Abacha money. By sheer coincidence, the gnomes at UBS suddenly discovered they too were holding Abacha accounts funds. And another $60 million was frozen there.

Authorities in Luxembourg froze $670 million in eight separate accounts for seven offshore shell companies that the Abacha brothers held in that country. And authorities in Liechtenstein froze $109 million sitting in one shell company account and another DM100 million in another.

The Nigerians had turned to the UK for help but no banks in Britain or Jersey seemed particularly anxious to co-operate. When asked to freeze accounts, they refused on the grounds that no criminal proceedings were underway in Nigeria. However, in Spring 2001, Britain’s Financial Service’s Authority (FSA) announced the discovery of $300 million sitting in 42 Abacha accounts held in 23 different banks. The turnover of these accounts for the period 1996-2000 was nearly £1 billion (then about $1.3 billion). But instead of pressing for prosecution against the banks and bankers in violation of UK money laundering laws — if nothing else, they were dealing in stolen funds — the FSA suffered an enormous loss in credibility by simply slapping the wrists of 15 banks for “significant weaknesses” in money laundering controls.

In July 2002, Nigeria’s Supreme Court ruled there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Mohammed on the murder charge, leaving him still facing 111 counts of laundering and corruption. While the court decision mystified some people, President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered negotiations to begin with the Abacha family for the return of Nigeria’s money.

The two sides worked out a deal, brokered by the Swiss, wherein the Abachas agreed to hand back than $1.35 billion in exchange for the government agreeing to free Mohammed from the cell where he’d been for the past three years. Under the terms of the agreement, the Abacha family would be permitted to keep around $100 million, which they somehow convinced the Swiss they’d acquired prior to Sani Abacha taking over as President. That a career soldier and public servant could amass such a fortune legally belies belief. But the Swiss fell for it and Obasanjo agreed the deal, hoping to put the matter behind his government. When Mohammed agreed to the settlement, Obasanjo ordered him released. As soon as he got out, Mohammed denied agreeing to return the family’s billion and the settlement collapsed.

(c) Jeffrey Robinson 2002, 2009, 2013

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US: Amazon Kindle: http://amzn.to/TKsyIr

UK: Amazon Kindle: http://amzn.to/Ri6464

SOMEONE STOLE MY BOOK ( this sleazebag here)


Imitation may well be the sincerest form of flattery, but the line definitely gets drawn at down-right naked theft.

Not theft as in, I’ll just stick this book in my pocket and walk out of the store. Theft as in, copying it and trying to pass it off as your own work. Theft as in, plagiarism.

The Laundrymen, my investigative adventure into the world of money laundering, was published around the world in the early-to-mid 1990s and has been revised several times since. Still in print in a number of c ountries, it also remains alive and well as an eBook.

In 1995, a Dutch edition of Laundrymen appeared under the title De Wit Wassers (“The White Washers”). A year or so later, my book unexpectedly showed up again in the Netherlands, this time called Fraude, but bearing the byline of a convicted Dutch con-man named Arie Olivier.

Journalists in Holland who received review copies broke the news with front-page stories that Fraude was just that — a fraud. The lazy schmuck Olivier had merely scanned the Dutch translation into his computer, changed my name for his and duplicated Laundrymen, word for word.

Although plagiarism happens with some regularity in academia, outright literary theft of this kind is less common. The Chinese are well known for openly stealing other people’s intellectual property — film, music, software — and for publishing books without paying for them. But that’s a straight-forward copyright issue. And while the Chinese government is famous for not doing much about it, as far I know, they have not yet stooped so low as to substitute organized copyright theft for organized plagiarism.

Like all authors, my name on my work and my copyrighted entitlement  to own that work are all I have. Which is why, when I heard what Olivier did, I automatically reverted to my American litigious self. I rang a lawyer in Britain to ask if he knew how to say “Rottweiler” in Dutch. He translated that as Rutger Middendorf — a brilliant young and aggressive attorney in Haarlem.

I got him on the phone and, before introducing myself, asked, “Do you read the papers?”

He was a bit confused, but confessed he did.

I said, “Did you read the story today about Arie Olivier’s book?”

He said he had.

I then announced, “My name is Robinson.”

From his reaction I knew, immediately, that Andy Warhol was right. Here was my 15 minutes of fame. And trust me, it’s a great quarter-of-an-hour, even if it’s only in the Low Countries.

On my behalf, Rutger moved against Olivier and his publisher, Spectrum. He obtained an injunction against both, the book was removed from stores and orders for it were stopped. At the same time, Rutger filed a suit against Olivier and Spectrum claiming “plagiaat.”

It’s one of the few Dutch words I can actually pronounce.

After issuing a press release that Fraude was withdrawn from sale, the Dutch press wanted to know what else I might have in mind. My answer was, “I’m going to find Olivier’s pain threshold and drive a Sherman tank through it.”

Olivier was infamous in Holland for defrauding little old ladies out of their state pensions, and also for going on television to lie that he was, secretly, an advisor to the FBI and the CIA. True to form, he now shamelessly took the ensuing publicity as a compliment and glowed in his own self-generated publicity as a “meesteroplichter” (master-criminal). Whether his ego was out of control or he was just too stupid to lay low, he actually admitted on radio that yes, he’d helped himself to my book. But, he added, he was entitled to because there were no copyright symbols in De Wit Wassers.

In fact, there were two, one for the Dutch translation and one for the original text.

Next, on Dutch television, he said that I should be grateful he copied my book because with his picture on the cover, it would sell better.

The story remained on the front pages of the Dutch dailies for several days, and was a topic of conversation on television and radio talk shows. At one point, Rutger called me to say that the most popular Tv show in the country was taping later that week, had invited Olivier to appear and wanted me, as well.

I wondered, “How about if, when I meet him, I bust him in the mouth?”

My kids were horrified, my wife knew that I was crazy enough to do it and Rutger assured me he’d get me out on bail within a few hours. So my head now filled with slow-motion versions of “KO in Holland” leading every evening news program on the planet. From there, I imagined, it was only a short step to my own talk show.

With hindsight, it’s probably just as well that Rutger wouldn’t let me appear. I wasn’t in bad shape, but Olivier turned out to be four inches taller than me and in better shape. Obviously, a well-timed left uppercut would sell books and extend my 15 minutes of fame to at least half an hour. But if I got hit back, only the dentist would win.

We then learned that Olivier had just gotten married to a much younger woman and was supposed to be on his honeymoon. The trip got cancelled because of this and neither bride nor groom was pleased. It was, he kept telling the press, all my fault.

When we finally met for the first and only time, it was a few weeks later in Haarlem’s Courtroom G, a modern, light wood paneled, well lit room with seats for 60 or 70 spectators.

The media took up all of them.

Rutger, two other lawyers from his office and I walked in and took our place at the plaintiff’s desk.

The attorneys representing Olivier and Spectrum, took their place at table on the other side of the room.

Then Olivier made his entrance. In his mid-50s, impeccably dressed, with glasses tipped back onto his forehead and a huge gold Rolex on his left wrist, he glad-handed and smiled, exuded charm and poise, and tried to show how unconcerned he was with all of this.

All I could think of was that, any meesteroplichter worth his title should at least be able to come up with a better stunt than unadulterated plagiarism. On the other hand, by definition, master-criminals are the ones who never get caught.

Presiding over the trial was the President of the District Court, Madame Terwee, a handsome woman in her 40s, with short hair and a soft voice. She took her place at the bench, one step higher than the rest of us. There was no jury. The only other official was the judge’s clerk who sat not far from Her Honor.

All the lawyers, including the judge and her clerk wore back robes with a white bib. Because everything was in Dutch, and I wouldn’t understand a word of this, one of Rutger’s assistants sat with me and translated.

Rutger spoke first, spending an hour outlining our complaint and quoting Olivier’s many acknowledgments of plagiarism. He and one of his colleagues then read from Laundrymen and Fraude, simultaneously, as if they were singing from hymnals in church, to show the judge that the books were exactly the same, word for word, paragraph for paragraph, chapter for chapter.

Rutger closed by reading from a published interview which contained Olivier’s opinion of this case. “They can kiss my ass!”

Needless to say, Her Honor was not amused.

When it was Spectrum’s turn, a short, dark-haired man with a bulldog face got up and made two main points. First, he said, his client was very embarrassed about this because it was such obvious plagiarism. And second, he said, “This really doesn’t have anything to do with my client because it is Mr. Olivier’s fault.”

Next, Olivier’s attorney stood up. An old man with a ring of white hair around an otherwise bald head and a matching white mustache, he also made two main points. First, palpably embarrassed, he announced that his client outright denied plagiarism.

Even the judge did a double-take.

Olivier’s lawyer then out-did himself by following that with, “Anyway, this isn’t Mr. Olivier’s fault because Spectrum knew what a fraudster my client is, so they should taken more care in accepting this book from him.”

The judge was speechless.

Rutger whispered to me he’d never heard anything so totally outlandish.

By this point, Her Honor had heard enough. She said, “This is a case of intellectual rape,” and suggested strongly that Spectrum “make an arrangement” with me. She did not invite Olivier to do the same. She said she would rule on his obligations to me after lunch and adjourned for an hour.

Wisely, Spectrum took the hint.

Once that was done, Olivier — who plainly knew the jig was up — ordered his lawyer to opt-in as a party to the “arrangement.”

So his lawyer told Rutger that if we allowed Olivier to pay up now, he would do that. But, he warned, if we waited for the judge to order it, we would get nothing because all Olivier’s money was hidden offshore.

Rutger worked out a deal. The defendants agreed to pulp all of the copies of Fraude, to cease and desist from plagiarizing my work, and to come up with enough money which would cover my costs plus, maybe, a celebratory meal.

The journalists were eager to know from Rutger if “arrangement” meant “settlement.” Understandably, neither Spectrum nor Olivier wanted the press to publish the details of the arrangement.
Instead, Rutger explained that arrangement was the operative word because settlement implied Spectrum and Olivier were paying for their indiscretions.

At the end of hearing, the judge asked me, in English, “Mr. Robinson, did you understand any of what you heard today?”

I smiled, “Not a word, your honor, but you do speak Dutch beautifully.”

She smiled back and Rutger got me out of there before I could say anything else.

And that should have been that.

A kid from “New Amsterdam” had taken on a crook from “old” Amsterdam — successfully reinforced the point that those of us who write for a living must vigorously defend our copyrights because if we don’t, there are plenty of people anxious to take them away, because if we don’t, we will lose them — and proved that no one needs a license to drive a Sherman tank.

But that wasn’t the end.

True to form, Olivier left the courtroom telling reporters that he won because I’d failed to get the “millions” I’d asked for — despite the fact that I never asked for millions, be it dollars, pounds or guilder.

The payment arrangement called for Olivier and Spectrum to pay half of what they owed within 30 days, and the second tranche 60 days later. The first payment came due and Spectrum duly wired their share into Rutger’s client account. They did the same with the second payment.

But Olivier’s lawyer had another idea. He phoned Rutger to ask where he would pick up the cash.

Rutger said, what are you talking about?

The lawyer said he had cash and wanted to hand it over.

Rutger said, no way, and insisted that the lawyer wire the required sum from his client account to Rutger’s client account. Reluctantly, he did. He also made the second payment that way.

And again, that should have been the end of that.

Except, it wasn’t.

Three or four months later, I was traveling when I picked up a voice mail from Rutger asking that I phone him immediately.

As soon as I got him on the phone, he asked, “Have you seen the Dutch papers today?”

I reminded my friend that no, I didn’t regularly read De Telegraaf, or Algemeen Dagblad or De Volkskrant and that, in truth, I’d only ever seen those papers when I was on their front pages. And anyway, even if I’d wanted a subscription, I couldn’t read a word of what was written in them, except my name.

He suggested I get copies, because they had the story that Olivier had just been arrested in Germany in possession of $800,000 in counterfeit US currency.

The clown was even more stupid than I’d thought.

He wound up spending a few years in a German prison for that stunt. I can only hope that, by the time he returned to Holland, his young wife had emptied his secret offshore accounts and gone off to live with a surfer at Bondi Beach in Australia. That would have pleased me.

Yet, all these years later what I still wonder about is this — did he pass off some of that counterfeit currency to his lawyer to pay us? And if he did, why didn’t I ask for twice as much?

fraude.jpg.jpg

 

THE SWISS BANK TWEETS

THE SWISS BANK TWEETS

IN THE END, IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GOOSE

Jeffrey Robinson © 2012

The SWISS BANK TWEETS began with a single Tweet from Katharina Bart, the Zurich based Reuters journalist whose insights into Swiss banking are as keen as anyone’s.

On June 6, she posted this: “Bank secrecy good for the #Swiss because it lowers taxes says #Eichenberger MT @SwissBankingSBA.”

She was referencing an article from that day’s German language newspaper, Mittwoch, which carried the quoted comment attributed to Dr. Professor Reiner Eichenberger, Head of the Center for Public Finance in the Department of Economics at the University of Fribourg.

The link to the article is: http://ow.ly/boA8X

Reiner is a serious guy who doesn’t mix his words, as was the case in December 2001, here quoted by Swissinfo. “It is very important for Switzerland that the pressure to lift the banking secrecy laws is spread out to other countries. Without an ally such as Liechtenstein, Switzerland would be alone in its role as sinner.”

For a man who makes economic judgments and not moral assessments, his was an interesting choice of words — “Sinner.”

Anyway, in her Tweet, Bart copied in the Swiss Banking Association, which notes on its own Twitter page (@SwissBankingSBA) that it is “the leading professional organisation of the Swiss financial centre.”

A staunch and faithful defender of its members interest, the SBA’s singular mission is to spin stories that might, at first glance, be considered harmful to anyone in the secret banking business.

The SBA and I are no strangers. Since writing The Laundrymen in 1992, I have often criticized them for playing fast and loose with the truth.

Accordingly, my response to Bart’s Tweet was, “It’s so good for Switz that #SBA is willing to lie and cheat to maintain it. Shameless hypocrisy.”

Within 12 hours, the SBA responded with, “@WritingFactory Mr. Robinson, polemics does not bring us anywhere. Our communication is always open and honest.”

Along with the response came this link to the SBA’s website: http://www.swissbanking.org/en/home/standpunkte-link/medien.htm

For the SBA to claim that its communication is always open and honest is yet another example of the SBA’s turbulent relationship with the truth. It is not open in the transparent sense of letting the chips fall where they may, and is all-too-often blatantly dishonest when the chips need to be swept under the carpet. But then, the SBA is not paid to tell the truth. It is paid to defend, blindly, its members interests.

And for many of us, those interests are, increasingly, indefensible.

For years, its president Pierre Mirabaud, one of Geneva’s leading private bankers, maintained an aggressive stance to ward off any and all criticism of banking secrecy. That the rest of the world was out of step with Switzerland was characteristic of his spin.

He often asked, “Why should Switzerland renounce its traditions of banking privacy just because the tax systems of neighbouring countries do not work properly or efficiently?”

Privacy being the deliberately chosen “softer” word than secrecy.

And the answer to his question is obvious: the tax systems of neighboring countries is not efficient in part because Switzerland will not renounce — and, in fact, actively encourages — it’s tradition of allowing people to pay for the privilege of hiding their assets.

When Mirabaud’s term came to an end a few years ago, Patrick Odier took over. Managing partner of the private Swiss bank Lombard, Odier is a highly educated, very articulate man. Unlike Mirabaud, who often came across as a snake oil salesman, Odier could sell used cars with only three wheels. And yet, slick as he is, he occasionally lets his cover slip by saying odd things.

Speaking at Davos in 2010, Odier wanted the World Economic Forum audience to know, “It is also important that politicians understand that bankers are not trying to protect what they have been doing [in the past].”

What makes this such a strange comment is that Odier’s presidency of the SBA is firmly committed to doing exactly that — maintaining the status quo of ultimate bank secrecy.

Earlier this year, while several European countries tried to strike tax arrangements with Switzerland — with the gnomes rightly fearing that a serious deal would lead to an exodus of high worth tax-evading clients — Odier stated categorically that capital flight would not happen. “Much of that money will stay one way or another to be managed professionally in Switzerland.”

The reason he could say that with such confidence was because he knew that the Swiss Banking Association, together with the government, would never allow anyone, especially a bunch of foreigners, to kill the goose that continues to lay golden eggs.

Secret banking is big business in Switzerland and anything more than window dressing to placate a few angry tax-hungry nations would be commercial suicide.

Defending that position, in December 2011, Odier made the outrageous claim, “Bank client secrecy protects wealth and does not hide it.”

Personally, I find it hard to believe that such an intelligent man could say something so totally dumb. But then, this sort of nonsense is exactly what the SBA’s president is put in office say with a straight face.

At the same time, as pressure has mounted from cash strapped nations in the rest of the world to hunt down tax dodgers, Odier has shrugged off their concerns with his version of the “out of step” rebuke. “Regrettably, you always find someone who doesn’t want to pay his taxes who will go to an island or I don’t know where…”

Which is yet another dumb thing to say because he knows damn well where many of these people go… Switzerland!

While the Swiss have sat down with Germany, Britain and Austria, pretending to look for some common ground, and while they are still pretending to negotiate with other nations, at every turn, Odier’s SBA has been quick to note, that “client privacy” has been defended.

In other words, if you want to evade taxes by hiding money in Switzerland, don’t believe what you read in the papers about the Swiss giving in to Germany, Britain, Austria, et al.

In other words, “We are still open for business.”

And, from the Swiss viewpoint, why not? If you don’t pay your taxes in Germany, Britain, Austria — or, especially, the United States — that’s no one’s business in Switzerland.

However, for all sorts of reasons, Odier and the SBA must pretend that it is. So they publicly agree with those nations looking to find tax dodgers and even claim to support a fairness doctrine of levying both punitive back taxes and a withholding tax on future earnings on certain accounts.

What the SBA doesn’t have to say is what every SBA member bank and banker knows full well — as long as you can disguise the beneficial ownership of your secret Swiss tax-evading accounts, you’ll always be welcome.

Plausible deniability lives.

Just do whatever the Swiss need you to do so that they can reclaim their virginity.

What’s more, by their own admission, the Swiss have made it abundantly clear that they will not agree to any deal that jeopardizes secrecy. After all, secrecy — not privacy but outright secrecy — is the cornerstone of the nation’s $2 trillion wealth management industry. If you kill their version of “omerta” the country would not only suffer irreparable economic losses, but unemployment would soar.

Professor Reiner got that very right!

Which is why Odier, and his predecessor Mirabaud — and everyone who will follow them — will never allow the SBA to waver in its unremitting stance to protect the goose.

At any cost.

Even at the cost of the truth.

In January 2012, Swiss journalist Jean-Michel Berthoud noted in Swissinfo that the nation’s bank secrecy legislation was causing problems in the international fight against money laundering.

Because Swiss law obliged the Money Laundering Reporting Office (MROS) to withhold certain information from its foreign counterparts, the
Financial Action Task Force (FATF) was warning that if Switzerland refused to exchange information, it could wind up on a black list.

Under normal circumstances, that should embarrass someone.

At the same time, the Egmont Group, an alliance of 127 financial intelligence units (FIUs) from all over the world, threatened to suspend Swiss membership unless the law on sharing was changed.

And if this was any other nation, the embarrassment would compound.

But this is Switzerland. And while a few politicians there agreed that the country could not refuse to align itself with international practice, the SBA is immune from embarrassment.

Shamelessly, it insisted that no exchange of information should be permitted unless the case is quite specific. That means, the case must be so narrowly framed that an exchange of information won’t really make a difference.

Nor, the SBA insisted, should information be passed on to third parties. “The Swiss authorities must see to it that if there is any suspicion that information is being forwarded elsewhere, that particular foreign money-laundering unit doesn’t receive any [information] in future.”

Of particular concern to the SBA, and other bodies, such as the Forum of Self-Regulatory Organisations, is the notion that foreign authorities could loosely define tax evasion as money laundering, and use that as a back door to obtaining information on tax evaders with accounts in Switzerland.

The SBA has stated that while it does not welcome international tax evaders and wanted to root them out, tax evaders were not money launderers and therefore deserved “omerta” protection.

Along with chocolates, watches and cheese with holes, hypocrisy is now a major export.

In the meantime, the Swiss announced that in 2011, suspicious asset flows reached a record high of around $3.21 billion. Much of that appears to have come from wealthy North Africans shifting assets away from “Arab Spring” nations.

Unfortunately, though, by the time of the announcement, much of that money had already found a home in Switzerland.

So how does Switzerland explain that, in spite of having money laundering and PEPs statutes in place, the money got there.

It doesn’t.

Nor do the Swiss apologize for the fact that, despite claims to the contrary, the money laundering and PEPs statutes they have in place, don’t work.

Ignoring the blatantly obvious, the Swiss prefer to respond that it did the right thing by freezing the assets of deposed leaders and their cronies from Tunisia, Egypt and the Ivory Coast.

Bully for them.

Except, under Swiss money laundering and PEPs statutes, they’re not supposed to look the other way, bank the money, hold onto it until they get caught and then freeze it.

In that Reuters’ article, Patrick Odier spoke about fierce competition between financial centers. And he reiterated that Switzerland would remain the clients’ favorite thanks to its “culture of privacy, professionalism and the security and stability granted by the traditional safe haven.”

For “culture of privacy,” read “culture of ultimate secrecy.”

Now, in addition to tax evading clients, add in PEPs, despots, defrocked dictators, still frocked dictators, corrupt politicians, their families and their mates.

Furthermore, Odier said, “We want to be known and develop because we’re good, not because we have illegitimate advantages.”

One can only assume that Odier wasn’t actually admitting to “illegitimate advantages,” even if everyone knows that’s what they are.

While he called on other nations to ratify treaties with Switzerland that are, in reality nothing more than window dressing to make it look as if the Swiss are cooperating — when they absolutely are not — he then let the cat out of the bag by admitting, “The pragmatic solution is worth 10 theoretical solutions that will never happen because Switzerland and its banks will not accept the automatic exchange of information.”

Secrecy lives.

And the SBA is there to defended it at all costs.

Its latest sleight of hand is to propose a new code of conduct for Swiss bankers, obliging them to turn away clients suspected of tax evasion. This follows along the same lines of those codes of conduct that oblige Swiss bankers to clamp down on money laundering, as well as accounts opened by politically exposed persons.

So tell me Mssrs Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, Ivory Coast, Abacha and your friends, just how well have those codes of conduct worked to keep your money out of Switzerland over the past 40 years?

In short, Swiss regulations, laws, statutes and enforcement are abject failures. But then, after years of sham and pretense, the SBA is not suddenly going to be “open and honest” by admitting that poachers make lousy game keepers.

And that became the subject of my Tweets in response to the SBA. There were 13 in all:

1) As a trade organization, your economic interest is obvious. Your objectivity is not. When have you ever criticized abuse?

2) Are you saying Swiss banking has always been honest and above board? If so, why does dirty $ continue to show up?

3) Are you saying the constant criticism of Switz banking practices, which protect Switz banking practices, are wrong?

4) How do you defend PEP/corruption $, which shows up, despite laws that it shouldn’t be there to begin with?

5) Was condemnation of UBS wrong? Why is capital flight (US tax evasion) openly encouraged by your member bankers?

6) How do you defend your members for deliberately hiding $ for Ben Ali, Mubarak, Abacha? et. al.

7) When was the last time one of your members was criminally prosecuted in Switz for #moneylaundering

8)How do you defend prosecution of whistleblowers at the expense of your members handling dirty money?

9) The Whistleblower Protection Act 2011 does not protect anyone in the private sector (bankers). Did you lobby against it?

10) Am I wrong to say your mission is to do whatever it takes to avoid killing the goose that lays the golden egg?

11) Why does #SBA constantly claim the world is out of step with Switz? How does that make you credible?

12) If Switz secrecy disappeared tomorrow, 50 jurisdictions would take its place. No excuse. It’s still indefensible.

13) Finally, I stand by what I said. Your job, as a trade organization, is to do & say whatever to defend your members.

I never expected any answers yet, less than 24 hours later, the SBA Tweeted back. I was surprised that it did, but not surprised that its answers reinforced my original claim of shameless hypocrisy.

Seven Tweets came from the SBA in response to my 13 points. Here they are, along with my rejoinders:

SBA 1) Wow, usually we’re comfortable with 140 signs, what is longer goes to our (very informative) website: swissbanking.org

JR 1) Informative? As opposed to spin, propaganda and sleight of hand? But that’s all right. You’re just doing your job.

SBA 2) Dirty money shows up ’cause it exists. But CH has effective laws to identify, block, seize & restitute it.

JR 2) So how come Swiss bankers continually deny that they have it, get caught with their pants down, then try to keep it?

SBA 3) The gvt is willing and able to act. And we support its actions. More on this: swissbanking.org/en/home/dossie…

JR 3) You’re rewriting history. Able, yes. Willing, no. Nothing happens until you get caught hiding it, and then you fudge it.

SBA 4) Untaxed money: we don’t want that any more and are working hard to find mutually agreeable solutions.

JR 4) Ludicrous. The industry is based on tax evasion/avoidance. Case after case shows Swiss bankers encouraging it.

SBA 5) More on this here: bit.ly/KDs9bz and here: bit.ly/KOzzbk

JR 5) A real tax treaty would kill the goose. And that will never happen. This is window dressing. You’re faking it.

SBA 6) And btw: Last conviction of Swiss banker for money laundering (to our knowledge) on 27 April 2012.

JR 6) Last? Or first? Swiss banker prosecuted by the Swiss? Who was he? Google, Bing and I are all at a loss. Details please.

SBA 7) We won’t tell names, Google it yourself, it’s public. Swiss laws/justice are working.

JR 7) How about a hint? Money laundering in Switz? PEPs violations? How well are Swiss laws/justice working. Or not!

I closed with four additional Tweets.

The first was: It’s good that you responded, but open and honestly? No. You’re rewriting history and trying to defend the indefensible.

The second was less polite but much to my point: You can dress everyone up in a brand new wedding gown, but Switz is still the whore on the street corner.

The third suggested: When you start putting Swiss bankers in jail for #moneylaundering and PEPs violations, please get back to me.

While the fourth was an after thought: BTW, if bankers in Switz are so lawful, how come you lobbied to exclude bankers from the Whistleblower Act? Just curious.

*****

June 15 – The saga continues:

For over a week, the SBA chose to ignore my questions, hoping perhaps that I would go away.

Mistake!

So  I confronted the SBA’s silence in a Tweet on Thursday afternoon, June 14, and this response appeared on Friday morning,  June 15, divided into five Tweets.

1) We communicate daily: we answer journalists’ critical questions, publish positions, dialogue with authorities, write articles

2) …in newspapers, give presentations in schools… In our name (open) & stating clearly what we want and why (honest).

3) Most people, even if they do not agree with our ideas, are pleased to discuss with us – and they are not offending.

4) From you we so far only got rants as answers to our messages…

5) …thus our inclination to continue that dialogue may have diminished.

Of course, it is pitifully obvious that these Swiss PR people — and that’s what the SBA is, a public relations office — cannot answer my questions openly and honestly without letting the cat out of the bag.

The truth and nothing but the truth is not a product that PR companies sell.

The SBA is not some altruistic bunch of chocolate and cheese loving hippies hoping to better mankind. It is a group of PR flacks who have been given phones, computers, office space and salaries to spin, vigorously (“communicating daily”) in an effort to control the news about its members’ aims and ambitions (“publish positions” which, among other things, means maintaining that banking secrecy is both moral and justifiable) and,  as importantly, to protect its members from embarrassment. (Such as truthful answers to my questions.)

It’s also hard to deny that — when the SBA insists, “In our name (open) & stating clearly what we want and why (honest)” — theirs is not a definition of open or honest. Citing the source isn’t what open means. And taking a position doesn’t equate to honesty.

Nor is it an open or honest response to my questions. Rather, it is a juvenile ploy to avoid answering — when the questions are too tough, accuse the questioner of offensive ranting — but again, that’s what these folk are being paid to do.

PR is about managing a client’s image at all costs, even at the expense of openness and honesty.

(Note: This is not a rant, it is a statement of fact.)

In fact, nothing could be more evident of the SBA’s reluctance to engage than its five Tweet response. It feigns offense to deflect embarrassment and to justify its inability to defend the indefensible by burying its head in the sand: “… thus our inclination to continue that dialogue may have diminished.”

Still, being the eternal optimist that I am, I reckon that open and honest communication is always worth another try.

So here goes.

“Dear SBA, please… s’il vous plaitbitte… just answer the damn questions!”

To be continued.

That is, if and when the SBA can figure out how to spin this.

*****

 

For more:

Jeffrey Robinson's Criminal Intent - The Swiss Wash Whiter:   

jr-ci-swiss_1.jpg 

 

 

LIFE ON THE RUBBER CHICKEN CIRCUIT

Jeffrey Robinson answers some probing questions

about being the international speaking circuit

for the agency Speakers Corner

 

 

SC: How did the corporate speaking start?

JR: I spent my last year of high school and my first year at university working as a saloon comic. This, at a time when I was still too young to get into saloons. Today they call it “stand up.” It was tough. Now that I’m old enough to get into saloons, I can’t stay awake that late. Corporates are the obvious answer. Most of the people I speak to can’t stay up that late either. A much more suitable group.

SC: Can you remember your first speaking engagement?

JR: Huh? I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years. I can’t even remember what I had for lunch yesterday.

SC: And your last event?

JR: That’s like lunch today. It was a late afternoon closing keynote that someone decided would be much nicer to have in the cocktail reception area of a converted prison (I swear this is true) than in the main room where everybody else spoke. Except the cocktail reception area was at the intersection of two long hallways. So I had half the audience on my left, down that hallway, drinking champagne, and the other half on my right, down that hallway, eating prunes wrapped in bacon. Who could forget that?

SC: Which event has been your favorite and why?

JR: I worked a corporate cruise many years ago with the great old British comic, Norman Wisdom. I went to his show and he came to my speech. I told the audience that I was very nervous with him there (which wasn’t true because I’m either too long in the tooth to get nervous or too foolish not to)  and that my wife’s advice was, “Just be yourself.” So, I told the audience, “I’m just going to be myself.” That’s when I whipped out a baseball cap, and put it on sideways the way Norman famously wore it in the movies. He loved it. I’ve used the same gag several times. I did it with the television commentator Robin Day who always wore a bow tie, with Britain’s most famous Rabbi, Lionel Blue, and a skull cap, and with a television weatherman in the UK, Ian McKaskel, who wore very thick glasses. They were like the bottom of Coke bottles and were his trademark. He even let me borrow them for the gag. The old ones are the best.

SC: If you could speak at any event, past or future, what would it be?

JR: Davos. Being able to talk directly to that much power and maybe, just maybe, make a point that changes things a little bit, would be very gratifying. Also, the food is good.

SC: Who would you most like to share a platform with?

JR: That’s tricky because I’m a much more generous performer than most people I’ve worked with. I’m happy to give way, most people aren’t, and I go home thinking, why did I do that? Although if you change “platform” to “deserted beach in the Pacific,” the answer is Michelle Pfeiffer.

SC: On average, how many times a year do you speak at corporate events?

JR: Some years 6-12. Some years 12-24. It usually depends, with me, if I have a book out, or have been doing a lot of television. But that doesn’t matter because when I’m not working, either I make my wife and kids listen, or I open the fridge door, the light goes on, and I do 20 minutes.

SC: Do you use powerpoint?

JR: Not even with my wife and kids. All I ask for is a podium so I can hide my notes, a lapel mike so I can move around and a glass of water.

SC: Are you as happy speaking to 50 as to 1000 people?

JR: Fifty is good. 1000 is better. In fact, the bigger the audience, the easier. I’ve done events with several thousand, and that’s wonderful. The nightmare is 8 people. I worked one night, many years ago, for a tiny group like that and it was a disaster. Small groups are a huge risk. This bunch called dinner at 8 for 8:30, and at 9:45 they were still in the bar. The table was set up so that everyone sat together, and with each course — there were four — a different wine appeared. By the time I got introduced at 1:15 am, no one was awake. My introduction was, “We have a speaker… go ahead.” It was horrible. But then, as I was the only sober one in the room, I hope I was the only one who noticed.

SC: How do you like to be introduced?

JR: How do I LIKE to be introduced? Six foot one, blond hair, blue eyes, cat-like movements. Because that never happens, I always hand someone a brief intro and just hope for the best.

SC: Do you like to do a briefing call before the event?

JR: It is absolutely vital. I want to give the organizers what they want. If no one tells me, I ask.

SC: What are the most asked for topics?

JR: These days it’s off the back of  my books on money laundering, fraud, organized crime and how they effect big business… especially the roles played by lawyers, accountants, brokers, bankers, etc.  What I never ever talk about is that week on the beach in the Pacific with Michelle Pfeiffer. But, trust me, if it ever happens, I’m telling everyone!

SC: Do you have any funny/embarrassing speaking anecdotes you care to share?

JR: Funny? Not funny in the hah hah funny sense, but there have been hundreds of enjoyable appearances. So, fun, yes. Embarrassing? I’m afraid so. I have followed clog dancers at midnight, and a stripper at lunchtime. I opened with a topical joke one night about Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan, only to discover… to my horror… no one in the audience knew who they were. I also spoke one afternoon in Portugal, to a huge business meeting, only to find out, too late, that no one spoke English. You’d think the organizer might have thought of that, first. But then, every seasoned speaker has stories like that. What I always try to do is help organizers understand what works best. In most cases, that means an early dinner event with an early after dinner speech. Early being the key. Well planned, that suits everyone, especially if people have been working all day and need to drive home. But then, I’ve been asked a few times for a before dinner speech — I’ve never understood that — and once, an in-between dinner speech, which means I was struggling for attention with waiters spilling soup.

SC: Got a favorite film?

JR: After seeing Charades, I stepped into some woman’s shower fully dressed. I guess you have to be Cary Grant to pull that off. After Un Homme et Une Femme, I started hanging out in France. It was too fattening. After Casablanca, I started saying to women, “We’ll always have Brooklyn.” They wanted Manhattan.

SC: Favorite book?

JR: Now, you’re talking. I write books that I want to read.

SC: Favorite holiday destination?

JR: I lived in the south of France for 12 years and once you know that part of the world, it’s tough to find anyplace comparable. Although a few years ago on a speaking engagement, I discovered Savannah, Georgia. It’s ranked high on the list of America’s great secrets. Rightfully so. Hauntingly beautiful, it’s the ante-bellum South in tact. Otherwise, I’m good in New York, London, Paris, Rome and once, a long time ago, but only for a weekend, Eufala, Alabama.

SC: Got a favorite tipple?

JR: I’m not much of a drinker. That said, put a bottle of ’61 Petrus on the table and count me in.

SC: Country or townie?

JR: Definitely townie. I was 22 the first time I met a cow. It was in Texas. I was on one side of the fence. She was on the other. Neither of us were terribly impressed.