the audit

The Plot Thickens at the CFTC

A judge accuses another judge of improprieties. But there's more to the story.
October 20, 2010

Say what?

The Washington Post has a brief story reporting that one of two administrative judges at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in retiring, is accusing his counterpart of saying he would never rule for a plaintiff:

“On Judge Levine’s first week on the job, nearly twenty years ago, he came into my office and stated that he had promised Wendy Gramm, then Chairwoman of the Commission, that we would never rule in a complainant’s favor,” Painter wrote. “A review of his rulings will confirm that he fulfilled his vow,” Painter wrote.

Painter continued: “Judge Levine, in the cynical guise of enforcing the rules, forces pro se complainants to run a hostile procedural gauntlet until they lose hope, and either withdraw their complaint or settle for a pittance, regardless of the merits of the case.”

Wendy Gramm’s husband is Phil, by the way, one of the major forces behind the disastrous deregulation bill that handcuffed the CFTC on credit-default swaps and helped lead to the current financial crisis.

The Post‘s piece follows a brief story from Futures magazine several days ago on Judge Painter’s allegation.

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But the plot thickens this evening with this longer Wall Street Journal story reporting that Painter’s wife is trying to get guardianship over the 83-year-old, who in turn is trying to divorce her.

Administrative law judge George H. Painter, 83 years old, issued rulings as recently as Feb. 26, 2010. A range of medical problems led to a 21-day stay in a geriatric psychiatric ward in June, according to Montgomery County (Md.) Circuit Court records filed by his wife’s lawyer. Those records were filed in an effort by his wife to seek guardianship over the judge.

Nicholas J. Schor, an Olney, Md., psychiatrist, wrote on Aug. 26, 2010, that Judge Painter’s disability was “profound” and it prevented him from making or communicating any responsible decisions, according to court records.

Judge Painter’s lawyer, Jean Galloway Ball, said in an interview he is capable of “managing his person and property.”

The judge’s wife says he mostly sleeps on the job, drinks eight martinis a day, and court records say he probably has Alzheimer’s and has had “cognitive impairment, alcoholism and depression” (though the judge’s son and niece say he’s fine).

So we’re left to wonder how the Post missed this big part of the story. It certainly requires a follow-up.

But we’re also left to wonder why the Journal downplays the judge’s accusations when his key piece of evidence is… a Wall Street Journal leder from a decade ago. The Post and Futures mention this story, but the Journal doesn’t.

I went looking for it in Dow Jones-owned database Factiva and can’t find it. But it exists. Here’s a link from the Investigative Reporters and Editors website and a Factiva print from the judge that looks like a Wall Street Journal story to me.

That piece reported that Judge Levine “In Eight Years at the CFTC, Levine Has Never Ruled In Favor of an Investor.”

So this is going to be a mess to untangle, but it’ll be quite the story if you can. Despite Judge Painter’s apparent infirmities, he’s not completely out to lunch on Judge Levine’s record. What’s Levine done since that 2000 WSJ story?

What’s been going on at the CFTC?

UPDATE: Barry Ritholtz points out that the Dow Jones reporter on the Journal‘s story wrote a story on October 15 on the Painter case. That story, which didn’t run in the paper, did refer to the WSJ‘s 2000 story.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.