Debits and Credits

A.P. abandons commonsense; Morgenson does it again; Forbes forgets something; Up in smoke?

A debit to the Associated Press for not getting the joke Wednesday on a nonsensical Katrina-lawsuit number. Its straight-faced story lent credence to the idea that money-grubbing Katrina victims are seeking more than $3 quadrillion from the government. You read that right. Quadrillion.

The number is so high because one foolish plaintiff among hundreds of thousands filed a lawsuit seeking the $3 quadrillion figure, whether as a prank or protest is not clear.

And yet the AP, abandoning editorial judgment, took it seriously.

Hurricane Katrina’s victims have put a price tag on their suffering and it is staggering—including one plaintiff seeking the unlikely sum of $3 quadrillion. The total number—$3,014,170,389,176,410—is the dollar figure so far sought from some 489,000 claims filed against the federal government over damage from the failure of levees and flood walls following the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.

Of the total number of claims, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it has received 247 for at least $1 billion apiece, including the one for $3 quadrillion.

“That’s the mother of all high numbers,” said Loren Scott, a Baton Rouge-based economist.

The “quadrillion” number is discussed in earnest, with more from economist Scott on how it’s probably a negotiating tactic.

“I understand the anger,” Scott said. “I also understand it’s a negotiating tactic: Aim high and negotiate down.”

We understand this: You’re an idiot.

The moronic discussion overshadows the story: that the U.S. Corps of Engineers says it has gotten some 489,000 claims for damages from faulty levees and flood walls—problems the Corps admits were its fault—and they are still coming in. One hundred have been filed in the past three weeks.

The city of New Orleans is seeking $77 billion. Funny? Not if you’ve seen the place. There are also fourteen wrongful death claims.

Focusing on the outlandish number, even though the AP admits that it’s “unlikely,” reinforces a couple of stereotypes that the insurance industry has an interest in perpetuating. One is that the legal system is out of control. The second is that policyholders and other Katrina victims are hustlers.

We expect more common sense from the AP

Gretchen Morgenson and The New York Times again lead the way on the subprime scandal, this time with ominous news that subprime leader Countrywide may have forged documents to support illegitimate charges to borrowers.

Morgenson has been all over Countrywide’s abuse of the trust-based bankruptcy system, where it has adled on fees and charges that already-strapped borrowers do not owe.

Back in November, Morgenson reported that a U.S. bankruptcy trustee in Pittsburgh asked for sanctions after Countrywide either lost or destroyed $500,000 in checks from borrowers—then charged them late fees and legal costs because of Countrywide’s own screw-ups or deliberate wrongdoing.

The latest revelations are potentially even more serious. The forged documents emerged from a case in Pennsylvania in which a homeowner had filed for bankruptcy back in 2001 but kept current on her obligations until the case was discharged last March.

A month later, however, Countrywide sent her a notice of default, saying she owed “monthly” late (and other) charges totaling, eventually, $4,700.

When the borrower’s lawyer complained, Countrywide produced three letters dated 2003, 2004 and 2007 addressed to the borrower and bankruptcy trustee.

Nobody had received the letters because they were never sent. A Countrywide lawyer later explained that they had been “recreated” after the fact. He said it was a mistake caused by “a processor.” Sure. Federal bankruptcy judge Thomas P. Agresti isn’t fooled.

“These letters are a smoking gun that something is not right in Denmark,” Judge Agresti said in a Dec. 20 hearing in Pittsburgh.

The Wall Street Journal this morning pays Morgenson the compliment of following her story with one (link for non-subscribers) on Countrywide’s bankruptcy abuses in Miami and Houston. Here’s a bankruptcy judge in Houston who is considering sanctions:

“How many times do I have to listen to that before I conclude, ‘You know, there’s got to be some kind of reckoning’ when I keep hearing time after time, ‘we made a mistake, we made a mistake, we made a mistake, we made a mistake?’”

A credit to the Los Angeles Times for reporting on allegations by former Amgen employees that the biotech company asked them to access medical files to better market a $20,000-a-year drug that was suffering from slowing sales.

The Times reports that one of the two plaintiffs, Marc Engelman, was a skilled salesman of the costly psoriasis drug Enbrel, a blockbuster product for Amgen that now faces competition.

But after five years at Amgen, Engelman says he left the company after failing to go along with aggressive and possibly improper marketing practices to boost Enbrel sales beyond its approved uses. The Laguna Niguel resident contends that the company required salespeople to gain access to patient medical information in doctors’ offices and market the drug directly to patients, many of whom may not have needed the medication.

Engelman and another former employee are in arbitration seeking damages for being forced out of Amgen, they say, after refusing to request access to patients’ files. They say Amgen tried to push them over an ethical line they would not cross.

The two former salespeople contend that Amgen executives inappropriately instituted a promotional campaign in 2005 to pump Enbrel sales by requiring salespeople to visit dermatologists’ offices and request to look through medical files.

If allowed, they say, the sales team would search for patients with psoriasis, then compose and send letters—on the doctor’s letterhead and signed by the physician—suggesting patients consider Enbrel.

In some cases, they said, the salespeople would pose as office employees and contact insurers to request whether a patient could get pre-approval to use Enbrel, clearing the way for physicians to prescribe the drug.

Amgen’s not the only party in trouble here if the allegations in the lawsuit are true. What were doctors doing letting pitchmen into their patients’ private records?

The L.A. Times tells us that the lawsuit says many of the doctors who let salespeople look at patients’ files were essentially on the take from Amgen, getting “as much as thousands of dollars to host dinners and lectures advising physicians and patients about the drug.”

While the doctor/pharmaceutical company conflict-of-interest story has been told before, it’s an ongoing one of critical importance. We’d like to hear from these doctors who were allegedly selling out their patients’ privacy.

Stories about studies are too often not much besides warmed-over press releases. Take for instance last week’s coverage of a study by the Minnesota Federal Reserve that found Wal-Mart’s effect on the communities it enters is small but mostly positive. Forbes used the results to shill for the retail giant with a story headlined “Wal-Mart Is Good For You” on its website.

Behold the fanboy context graph:

The retail behemoth, which grew to dominance through a strategy of serving lower- to middle-income customers, is one of the greatest success stories in American business history. Some economists give more credit to the company than to Alan Greenspan for the low inflation of the past 20 years, given how greatly its low-cost model has rippled through the industry and the economy.

Not much reporting by Forbes here—study accepted, no questions asked (except to the author of a book called “Wal-Mart Revolution”). Also, a fact error in the story implies that Wal-Mart sells cars. That’s one of the few businesses it hasn’t gone into yet.

A Reuters story didn’t do much better, quoting only the study’s author and a Wal-Mart flack. You’d never know from either story that there are plenty of other studies out there that have reached different conclusions.

Thankfully, Bloomberg rides in with a balanced article that proves skeptical journalism is in fact still in practice:

“There is strong evidence that jobs created by Wal-Mart in metropolitan areas pay less and are less likely to offer benefits than those they replace,” a study by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education concluded last month.

In urban and suburban areas with Wal-Marts, and where jobs tend to be higher-paid, “we found an impact that is quite significant,” said Ken Jacobs, a University of California, Berkeley, professor who co-authored the December study. Jacobs said the labor center’s findings in rural areas were similar to today’s study.

That wasn’t so hard, now was it?

Conspicuously absent from The Wall Street Journal’s page-one story on Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne’s resignation was any mention of his pot-smoking, a detail that lit up its great page-one story (that surely hastened his demise) two months ago.

Perhaps the WSJ is backing off its reporting. Or maybe the Journal belatedly agrees with critics who thought writing about it was one toke over the line.

Where’s an ombudsman when you need one?

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Anna Bahney is a Fellow and staff writer for The Audit