In his “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. Inside Steven Cohen’s frustrated PR machine:
Steven Cohen, the billionaire who is widely reported to be the ultimate target of prosecutors investigating insider trading at his hedge fund, has to be either crazy-reckless or supremely confident of his innocence. Either way, the master-of-the-universe buying spree he went on last week must make him the ultimate nightmare for the savvy financial PR firm that represents him, Sard Verbinnen & Co.
On the heels of a proposed $616 million insider trading civil settlement with the SEC — which a federal judge last week said he was skeptical about approving because Cohen’s firm admitted no wrong-doing, and which prosecutors have taken pains to point out does not end their criminal investigation — Cohen made headlines last Monday by buying a Picasso for $155 million. The next day he got still more ink, this time for snagging a place in the Hamptons for $60 million down the road from an estate he already owns there.
That’s hardly the kind of keep-your-head-down behavior one might expect from someone trying to hold prosecutors at bay and soften public calls for his beheading. When a longtime top deputy was marched out of his Park Avenue coop early Friday morning after being arrested by the FBI, the bulls-eye on Cohen became that much more obvious and made his over-the-top buying spree that much more bizarre.
So, while the straight news stories about these purchases or about the ongoing investigation are fine, I’d like to read something about whether this guy is crazy, and about what his PR people at Sard Verbinnen — who’ve represented such villains-of-the-moment as Martha Stewart and former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld — have been telling him about this kamikaze behavior.
Could Cohen be so deluded that he thought that the purchases — which were destined to become highly publicized because of their size and which Cohen’s PR people made no effort to hide — would provide “What-me-worry?” reassurance to his investors or be an intimidating display of strength to the prosecutors? I’d pay a lot for the video rights to whatever discussions Cohen had about all of this with the Sard Verbinnen team, but I’ll settle for a print story with some leaks of the conversations.
Sard Verbinnen founder and CEO George Sard is usually the member of the firm most identified publicly with high profile clients; he memorably was photographed sitting just behind Fuld when the fallen Lehman CEO was dragged before a Congressional investigating committee. Yet only Jonathan Gasthalter, who works for Sard, has been named as speaking on behalf of Cohen. What’s the story behind that?
2. Unlikely lobbyists:
Question: Why would the Corrections Corporation of America, a for-profit business that provides outsourced jail and prison facilities to cities and states hoping to save money on incarceration, be lobbying against immigration reform?
As explained in this item from the Center for Responsive Politics (the terrific organization that monitors political spending in Washington), the company makes significant money jailing detained illegal immigrants, and immigration reform might result in reduced detentions.
This suggests an ongoing series for the Washington Post or Politico that covers Capitol Hill and, better yet, any newspaper covering a state capital: Spotlight the most unlikely special interest lobbying for or against something.
Sure, it’s easy to figure out that the soda industry will be wary of regulations aimed at curbing obesity. Or that the oil and gas people will line up against rail subsidies. But how about some special interest positions that are more interesting?
Are makers of CT scan and MRI equipment trying to block medical malpractice tort reform because it might reduce the number of unnecessary tests that doctors order in the emergency room just to protect themselves, thereby creating an unlikely alliance between big corporations like GE and Siemens and their traditional foes in the plaintiffs lawyers’ bar?
Or are police unions fighting laws allowing cameras to catch speeders because from their perspective anything that replaces a cop can’t be good? Yes, at least in Albany; this story reports that the police unions’ successful opposition drove New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg into a tirade last week against legislators who, in his view, caved to special interests.
A series like this would be a fun way to shine light on how, depending on your point of view, special interests selfishly block progress for the narrowest of reasons — or are there to make sure every side is heard.
3. A $600 million question: