Monday, March 30, 2015

Closing the File on a Criminal and Junkie Named Judd Bagley

Bagley, charged with eight felonies, cut a plea deal to avoid prison

I've written about a veritable rogues gallery of criminals over the years, ranging from Mafia capos to penny stock hustlers to Bernie Madoff, but by far the creepiest was a corporate hatchet man from Utah named Judd Bagley.

Bagley called himself a practitioner of "P.R. 2.0" or something like that, but there was nothing novel about his job, which was to be sure that if you were a reporter or analyst, you didn't dare criticize Overstock.com and its CEO, Patrick Byrne. That was no easy job, because Overstock has been beset by a series of grave allegations since it went public in 2005. Its long history of serious issues runs the gamut from cheating customers, as successfully charged by California prosecutors, to gross mismanagement, to misleading investors about its financial condition.

Byrne after his arrest
Bagley did his job with a kind of maniacal zeal. From 2006 to 2011, when he abruptly ceased his activities in the wake of a libel suit, he frantically stalked and harassed journalists and critics of this third-rate retailer and Byrne, going on and off the company payroll. (At last look he was on.) Byrne is noted for misogyny and paranoid delusions, so preventing the media from writing negatively about him, such as keeping his arrest on gun charges out of the occasional puff pieces, was a full-time job in itself.

To accomplish his mission, Bagley spun elaborate conspiracy theories and engaged in smear campaigns like this one targeting Bloomberg's Susan Antilla. Bagley stalked the wives and children of critics, once creating a fake Facebook identity for that purpose.

It was a dirty job, but there's little question that his tactics deterred negative coverage. In 2010, after a relentless series of posts by Sam Antar, the blogger and reformed felon, Overstock restated its earnings to throw out years of phony profits. Sam wrote about it here. See if you can find a reference to it in the media.

Bagley's crim baggage is no help.
With negative coverage deterred, Bagley has paved the way for Overstock.com chairman Jonathan Johnson, a doctrinaire libertarian, to consider a run for governor of Utah. It's not known if Johnson's political ambitions have curbed Bagley's cyberstalking in recent years, but we can surmise that Bagley's criminal record, which has not come out publicly until now, wouldn't do him a bit of good if he runs.

Bagley always seemed a bit strange, a bit "off"—obsessed, maniacal, prone to public tantrums that seemed odd for a p.r. guy. He gave the impression of being a ticking time bomb. Financial commentator Barry Ritholz once described Bagley as "a career douche bag" and, due to his stalking the children of Overstock critics, a "possible pederast." Still, no one ever quite got a handle on why Bagley was quite so weird. I certainly couldn't figure him out.

Well now we know the answer: It turns out that Bagley was and is a raging drug addict.

Sam Antar's blog revealed today that Bagley was arrested in 2013 on eight felony counts of altering prescriptions so he could illegally acquire the addictive prescription drugs Lortab and Adderall during 2012 and 2013. He pleaded guilty to reduced charges, was fined and sentenced to probation and a lengthy period of community service, monitored by an ankle bracelet. The court filings can be found here. It's not clear from the court filings if Bagley was required to undergo periodic drug testing, and if not, that was a significant oversight.

Sam also reveals that Bagley, who liked to project a "family man" image as he stalked the families of Overstock critics, preys on lonely housewives when he isn't shooting up.

Preyed on a school volunteer
In lawsuit filings, Bagley confessed to cheating on his wife Kristen with a married woman, the mother of a student at a school where he as a sponsor, the Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy in Lindon, Utah. This took place at about the same time he was forging drug prescriptions, and continued even after he was arrested and "rehabilitated." The husband of the woman he preyed upon sued Bagley, who first lied about the affair and blamed his victim, finally admitting to it as the evidence mounted up. The suit's filings are online here.

As Sam points out today, "It was not the sad excess of a man in midlife crisis, but the vicious act of an out-of-control drug addict, a tawdry affair that smacks of sexual harassment--in addition to exposing Bagley as an absolute hypocrite."

Forging a prescription is low-life addict behavior, really desperate and high-risk, and Bagley was caught doing it repeatedly. He obviously needed a fix badly.  Lortab, "when used illicitly, it is often crushed into a powder and either snorted or an mixed with water and injected. Both of these routes of administration result in a faster and stronger high, often compared to the high of heroin." Adderall has been dubbed "America's Favorite Amphetamine."

I knew that one day Bagley would be disgraced and discredited, and that his victims would be vindicated by his own self-destruction. It was inevitable: he was just too out-of-control. But I assumed the coup de grâce would come from the libel suit now pending against him or from stock-fraud charges. I never expected that his downfall would be quite so grimy and pathetic.

© 2015 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Steven Emerson, Smears, and the Folly of Ideological Labels

So I see that Steven Emerson has been smeared again by the New York Times, and by the same reporter, Robert Mackey. I'm referring to this article.

For the third time in a week, Mackey has referred to Emerson as a "self-described expert on Islamist terrorism." He really seems to like the way those words roll off his fingers into his laptop, I guess. The only problem is that they are not accurate.

As I pointed out in my last blog post, Emerson is a bona-fide expert on Islamist terrorism, and has been described that way quite a few times over the years by people like A.M. Rosenthal, the paper's former top editor. Calling somebody a "self-described" anything is a back-handed way of calling that person a "fake."

He goes on to say that "Mr. Emerson was shamed into issuing a public apology." Wrong. It's just not accurate to say that Emerson was "shamed" into apologizing for his Birmingham gaffe. He did so with blazing speed. It might be fair to say that he was "shamed" if he had tarried for a week as the condemnations piled up, and then sheepishly admitted his mistake. But he didn't. It's not true. 

The Times has utilized at least seven different ways of referring to Emerson in recent days. I have a problem with six of them.

Apart from Mackey's use of "self-described"—shorthand for "phony" which seems to be the approved format as it has been used three times—the Times has also referred to Emerson as an "expert," utilizing scare quotes as a sly way of saying "he ain't no expert."

In yet another Times article, the newspaper referred to Emerson as "identified as a terrorism expert." Now that's accurate. But that's a bit like saying that Sam Spade has been "identified as a private eye." If I were to say that, I would be implying that a lot of people call Sam Spade a private eye, but that's unproven and I'm noncommittal on the subject. It would be an unnecessarily negative way of referring to Mr. Spade.

A Reuters article on the Times site says Emerson is "described on his website as 'an internationally recognized expert on terrorism.'" This choice of words implies that Emerson is an obscure individual, and that you have to go to the man's website to find this description, suitably set out in scare quotes. It leaves readers with the impression that Emerson is a one-man kook with a personal website, rather than a widely-quoted terrorism authority who runs a substantial nonprofit organization with a staff.

Two AP descriptions of Emerson appear in the Times website. One of them hews  to the Reuters model, albeit without scare quotes, but conveys much the same message that Emerson's credentials are dubious. 

And now we come to the seventh Emerson reference on the newspaper's website. In this AP article, the wire service refers to Emerson as "an American author who often is asked about terror networks."

That's accurate, fair and nonjudgmental. Sure it could say more about him, but it doesn't denigrate  Emerson the way the Times has repeatedly—you might say "obsessively"—been doing. It just states the facts.

The Times clearly has an Emerson problem. It's not really about Emerson, I think, but what he represents.

To much of the media nowadays, people who oppose the spread of Islamist radicalism are viewed as "right wingers."  I experienced that myself a few weeks ago, when I was interviewed about the radical attorney Stanley Cohen, who recently entered federal prison on tax charges amid a blaze of self-generated publicity. Cohen not only represents Islamic radicals in courts but proclaims his love for them. When I expressed disgust about the man in our phone interview, the journalist asked me if I was a "conservative."

Since when have radical Islam and its supporters become standard-bearers of the progressive movement, so the people disgusted by them are "conservative"? The politics of Islamist extremists is close to fascistic. Yet because they oppose the U.S. government, to a lot of people they become latter-day proxies for Che Guevara. Loathsome totalitarians have somehow become "progressive" icons, and people who don't care for them very much have become "right wing" or "conservative." The media has largely adopted this fallacious trope.

By expressing disdain for an enthusiastic supporter of terrorists, I somehow was conflated into a "conservative" by the journalist who interviewed me. He might want to explain that to the Ayn Rand supporters who vituperatively attacked me as a "socialist" and worse when my book Ayn Rand Nation was published.

"Left" and "right" labels, I think, are nonsensical when it comes to the Islamist threat, a movement with historical Nazi ties and a fascist, xenophobic, fundamentalist philosophy that somehow appeals to a goodly number of people on the far left. It would take me a dozen blog posts to explain that grisly phenomenon.

To come back to Emerson: The Times, I think, has pigeonholed Steve Emerson as a right-winger by dint of his strong views on the subject of Islamist extremism. While one might reasonably argue whether the Times has an ideological bias against Emerson and people like him, Mackey clearly does. It was no surprise at all to find this blog post on Mackey's openly slanted work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. See also this correction.

You know, the Times could help me a lot in pondering why it's being so unfair and inaccurate by making it unnecessary for me to do so, and correcting its Emerson errors. Come on guys. You can do it.

© 2015 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Smearing of Steve Emerson

I haven't been blogging in a while. I've been busy with other stuff, and nothing has really raised my hackles enough to bang out something here—at least, until now. What has gotten me annoyed has to do with a gent you may have heard of named Steven Emerson.

Now if I said "what has gotten me annoyed is Steve Emerson" you might know why. He's been all over the media, and not in a good way. He has been pilloried, pounded, thrashed, insulted, denigrated and gleefully attacked, all of it because of a gaffe he made on live TV last Sunday. In an appearance on Jeanine Pirro's show on Fox News Channel discussing the rise of radical Islam in Europe, he said that "there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don't go in."

Now I don't mean to excuse what Emerson did, but on live TV people sometimes say things they shouldn't have said—become confused, or otherwise bollocksed up. I've probably said things in TV appearances I should have said differently or not at all. (I can't recall any but hey, it's possible!) A friend tells me that he once was told that if he let a five-second gap pass by without speaking on a particular program, that he won't be invited back. In other words: "Don't make the mistake of thinking!"

Fact is, Birmingham is not "totally Muslim," though it has a large Muslim minority, and the idea that non-Muslims "simply don't go in" to the city is also wrong, though there have been quite a few reports of Islamic extremism in the city. Emerson had barely gone off the air before the attacks began. British Prime Minister David Cameron said he "choked on his porridge" when he heard that, and said of Emerson "This guy is clearly a complete idiot." 

Emerson didn't respond with equal vitriol, or try to slime his way out of it. He did the right thing (as did Pirro, who quickly slated an on-air correction). He immediately apologized for his remarks and said that he was making a contribution to Birmingham Children's Hospital. It was a heartfelt apology, but it only seemed to make his critics more gleeful in their increasingly vindictive, personal attacks. The most visible of the news organizations on the attack was The New York Times.

The Times and Fox are rivals in a number of ways—politically as well journalistically. Fox commentators have been critical of the Times, in website pieces like this and in remarks by Fox commentators.  That kind of rivalry is fine. It's healthy. It's as old as Park Row. But character assassination, while it may be an old tradition in yellow journalism, is another matter entirely. It's unacceptable and, more often than not, reflects more on the smearer than on the smearee.

The Times, I regret to say, has smeared Emerson in a very fundamental way, by denying his lengthy record as a terrorism expert. The irony is that it did so in offhand, throwaway remarks—very much the kind of error Emerson made. Except that Emerson apologized immediately. The Times has not.

In an "Open Source" column on January 12, reporter Robert Mackey said as follows:
Then, before that wave of digital outrage had even begun to crest, Steve Emerson, a self-described expert on Islamist terrorism, appeared on Fox News to make the startling and false claim that some parts of Europe — including areas of France, London and the entire English city of Birmingham — “are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in.”

Note the inaccuracy. Emerson only said Birmingham was "totally Muslim." The transcript shows he made no such claim about London or Paris. But what strikes me as significant, even more than that sloppiness, was the personal denigration of Emerson, which he repeated in another article.

That article, co-written with Stephen Castle, ran at the top of Page A8 on January 13. Most of the article was routine reporting, a rather simple task for two reporters—perhaps deceptively simple, judging from the three corrections that the Times had to run, and which appear at the bottom of the article to which I just linked.

The lead said as follows:
LONDON — First, the owner of the Fox News Channel incited an outpouring of ridicule for suggesting that all followers of Islam must take responsibility for the Paris attacks. Then the Fox pundit who is a self-described terrorism expert caused a second wave of stunned disbelief, asserting that some parts of Europe — including Britain’s city of Birmingham — have become so Islamic they are off limits to non-Muslims.
Note what I've put in boldface in the two excerpts above. It's what's known on the Internet as a "meme." It's what old fogies like me call a "smear." I would define it as a swift, brief description of something or somebody that takes hold and races across the Internet like a mouse with a tabby cat in pursuit. Describing Emerson as a "self-described expert" has been picked up by the British media, in articles like this one in the Independent.

When you call someone a "self-described expert" it's a bit like calling someone a "self-described doctor." Without actually doing so, you're saying that he or she is not a doctor, not a person of learning and experience. He or she is a phony. A charlatan, a quack and perhaps something of a nut. That's what the expression means.

Another way to smear somebody without actually saying anything nasty (but conveying the thought just as neatly) is the use of what are known as "scare quotes." An example:
I just took my car in to the service center, and the "mechanic" there proceeded to create more problems than I had when I went in.
See what I mean? I've just conveyed to you the message that the mechanic at the service center was inept and perhaps a crook, or maybe not even a mechanic at all but some kid who hangs around the place. That's the judgment that any ordinary reader of that sentence would make, if he believes me.

One of the most widely-read and well-respected columnists at the Times is Nicholas Kristof. In a broadside against Fox on January 14,  Kristof said:
Maybe if these “journalists” left their bubble and actually talked to more Muslims, they wouldn’t spew nonsense — such as that Pakistan is an Arab country or that Birmingham, England, is entirely Muslim and a no-go area for Christians. That paranoid claim by a Fox News “expert,” later retracted, led wags to suggest that the city had renamed itself Birming, since Muslims avoid ham.
I can almost understand the first use of scare quotes. It's pretty much part of the catechism of activists and persons with strong political beliefs that people in the media who disagree with them are not really journalists but are something else. Frogs, perhaps? Termites? But not journalists. But the scare quote around "expert" was of a different order of magnitude. It was directed personally against Emerson.

Like the "mechanic" who screwed up my car and isn't really a mechanic, Emerson is not an "expert" at all, you see. That's the message.

I can't really say I blame Kristof. After all, in this article on Emerson's website in 2008, Emerson raked him over the coals for a column that criticized the U.S. and Israel for isolating the Hamas terror group. If someone had so thoroughly disemboweled something I wrote, I might view that person negatively as well. But I do think that if I was writing a column about the person who had slammed me, I would have made an appropriate disclosure to inform my readers: hey look, I feel this way about this person sincerely, but you ought to know that he has gone after me in the past.

But that's just a quibble. The problem with the scare quotes in Kristof's column, and the denigrating "self-described expert" wording in the news story, is that they are just factually incorrect. Whether you like him or not, or agree with him or not, Emerson is a bona fide expert on terrorism. Period.

How do I know this? Well, for one thing, I read it in The New York Times.

I don't even have to go to Emerson's website, where accolades from numerous distinguished persons are quoted, including former New York Times executive editor A,M. Rosenthal, who said:
 "Steve Emerson is one of the nation's best national security correspondents. His investigative work on radical Islamic fundamentalism is absolutely critical to this nation's national security. There is no one else who has exhibited the same expertise, courage and determination to tackle this vital issue."
I think that quote alone would have been sufficient for any fair-minded person to realize that Emerson is not a "self-described" terrorism expert, that the term "expert" can be used to describe him without scare quotes, and that he has been described that way by people who know what they're talking about.

In this 1995 column, Rosenthal called Emerson "an investigator of terrorism who has turned out a strong body of work in film, books and print journalism. Among government officials I talked to, credit for Mr. Emerson was not only acknowledged but volunteered."  In this column in 1996, he called Emerson a "brave independent journalist" who "has exposed the money-raising of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the U.S. and Washington's failure to take effective action under existing law." 

Kristof began working at the Times in 1984, when Rosenthal was still the Times's executive editor. But he and his colleagues didn't even have to rely upon the word of the man who formerly ran their newspaper.

In this article in the Times in 1988, veteran Times reporters Martin Tolchin and Richard Halloran described Emerson as "an expert on intelligence."

In this book review in the Times in 2002,  then-assistant editorial page editor Ethan Bronner didn't agree with a lot of what was in the book. But he still described Emerson as "an investigator who has performed a genuine service by focusing on radical Islamic groups in this country."

You'd never know any of this if you've only relied upon what the Times has said about Emerson in the past few days. The image it has painted of him is that of a guy who sits in his basement, perhaps communicating with flying saucers through a tinfoil hat.

What's dismaying about the way the media has skewered Emerson is not only that in so doing it has smeared him, but that the outrage is so selective. A case in point: Jim Clancy. The CNN correspondent recently retired after 34 years on the job. For two days after his departure, not a single media outlet pointed out that he left in the wake of an incident in which he churned out bizarre anti-Israel tweets in his Twitter account concerning the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The Times finally picked up on Clancy in an article prepared for the Sunday edition. Until then, you had to read blogs like Mediaite or Israeli newspapers like the Jerusalem Post to learn about the departure of a CNN broadcaster who is much more high-profile than Emerson. A Gawker item, far more informative than the Times piece, appears to have inspired the newspaper to act.

A sampling of his tweets can be found here. They are at least as inflammatory as Emerson's gaffe, except that they were not a gaffe but a reflection of Clancy's opinions, which are far from sympathetic to Israel.  

Yet the delayed coverage of the Clancy mess in the Times was as even-handed and bland as its handling of Emerson was instantaneous, mean-spirited and vindictive. Note the last paragraph of the Clancy piece, which describes the broadcaster's background, as compared to the total absence of such context in the far longer Emerson articles.

Why the disparate treatment and the utter lack of fairness shown to Emerson? One can only speculate. But while we're pondering that, let's see if the Times corrects its smear of Steve Emerson and the error in the "Open Sources" column.

Let's ponder this as well: what makes Emerson an expert is that he has a strongly-held view of the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, one that he has developed over many years of reporting that have strongly shaped his views. These views are not politically correct, and do not adhere to the point of view generally expressed in the Times, especially in its editorials and by its columnists, especially Kristof.

In a broader sense, the Times, as an institution, has to discredit Emerson, because if he is right in his view of Islamist extremism, the Times is wrong. Dangerously wrong.

© 2015 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Sunday, January 05, 2014

Judge Fines Overstock.com $6.8 Million, Rules It Needs a 'Price Coach'

Sam Antar's blog is out this weekend with an item describing how a California judge has slammed Overstock.com with a $6.8 million penalty for consumer fraud.

Ruling on a lawsuit brought by a consortium of California district attorneys, the suit contends that Overstock used phony price comparisons in claiming that it offered customers a bargain.

What's interesting about this case, I think, is how Overstock worked overtime to head off the bad news. In a TV commercial (see below) featuring Mike Ditka, the "price coach," the company claimed that it "price checked over 500,000 products a week" to make sure customers got the best prices.


But Judge Wynne S. Carvill, a Superior Court judge in Alameda County, didn't buy that malarkey. He ruled that Overstock systematically overstated the amount of savings customers could get by buying at Overstock.

To make matters worse for the company, it not only has to pay the fine, but is likely to be assessed attorneys fees and investigative costs, which could run into the millions, and it will be subject to an injunction requiring Overstock to provide proper price comparisons.

That's a real "price coach," not an actor playing one.

The irony is that customers don't need a price coach to find out if they're getting a good deal at Overstock. All they need is Google or a free browser add-on called Priceblink, which automatically compares prices at a variety of online vendors.

Anyway, it's not over for Overstock. I'm sure the company will appeal, throwing more good money after bad. Sam reported that last quarter "the company reported a $2 million increase in legal fees resulting in large part from the 'defense of a case brought by district attorneys in eight California counties.'" That's dumb, I guess, but not as dumb as the consumers who actually buy there expecting the best deal.

Just today I was looking for a cheap corded phone. At Amazon.com an AT&T 210 corded phone costs $9.34. At Overstock the price is $13.59. OK, that stinks, $4 more than Amazon. That's bad, but what's worse is this:  

Save $12.23 (47%) Compare $25.82
 Yep, that's what it says. $25.82-- $7 above the list price, which, as the Amazon listing points out, is $18.79.




 When you click on "compare" you get the following gobbledygook:
What is "Compare"?
The term "Compare" means the price at which, in the reasonable judgment of our experienced buyers, manufacturers or suppliers, the item may be sold in the U.S. on an everyday basis. Other vendors sometimes refer to this as the "retail price" exclusive of special promotions or sale prices, at which the item might be offered at retail stores and at customary retail mark-up. In many instances, though not all, the "Compare" prices reflects a price suggested by the manufacturer or supplier of these goods, without reference to actual retail sales and may amount to an estimation of a retail offer price in accordance with standard industry practices. It may also include a reasonable average estimated shipping cost, if ordinary shipping costs have been discounted or eliminated.

We make no representation that the products have been sold or offered at the "Compare" price, and the price may or may not reflect the average or prevailing market price in any area on any particular day. For some items listed as a set, the "Compare" price may be an aggregate of the suggested or estimated prices for all items included in the set. Actual retail sales in your area may substantially differ from the "Compare" price. Moreover, the nature of internet sales on a national or international basis, and the fact that we deal in overstocks, closeouts, end-of-season, and unique items that may be sold only on Overstock.com, precludes our ability to know whether our products are sold at the "Compare" price at any particular location or time by other vendors.

You may choose to use the "Compare" price as an approximate guide to what you would or could pay for these items in other locations, at other times, or under other conditions, including full retail price.

Translation: "ain't nobody selling it for $25.82." A Priceblink price search bears that out.

When Overstock says "the nature of internet sales on a national or international basis, and the fact that we deal in overstocks, closeouts, end-of-season, and unique items that may be sold only on Overstock.com, precludes our ability to know whether our products are sold at the 'Compare' price at any particular location or time by other vendors..."--that's just sheer ca-ca. A quick Internet search, with or without Priceblink, shows quickly that the "compare at" price is as phony as a $3 bill.

Yep, Overstock customers sure could use a "price coach," though I don't think there's much the "coach" would say except, "shop somewhere else." 


© 2014 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
Please note that the comment function does not work, possibly because I've screwed up the settings. Drop me a line at the email address on the right side of this blog, and I'll include your comments.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss


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United Healthcare, Obamacare, Franz Kafka, and the 'Positive Healthcare Experience'

United Healthcare was excited to have me

The letter from United Healthcare was dated December 9, 2013. It said as follows:

Dear GARY WEISS,

Thank you for choosing United Healthcare. We are excited to be able to provide you a positive healthcare experience and to ensure that you understand your benefits and payment requirements.

I was very pleased to receive this letter.

As I recounted a few weeks ago, United Healthcare had previously provided me with differing and inconsistent versions of my 2014 health insurance, which I had purchased in early November on the New York Health Exchange. The letter included a bill for the premium, which correlated with the amount of the premium previously disclosed to me.

Since the payment was due on January 1, I felt that there would be no problem with waiting until Dec. 28 to make my payment. I did so. My payment, which was by credit card, was acknowledged.

There was only one problem. At no time after receiving that letter did I receive anything else from United Healthcare--such as, most importantly, insurance ID cards  that would permit me to actually use my health insurance. That was a matter of some concern to me, as my previous healthcare coverage expired on December 31.

On January 2, I telephoned United Healthcare at the Member Services phone number (877-856-2429). That put me into its automated service, which asked me whether I had questions about "benefits" or "enrollment." There were no other categories. I pressed the number for "enrollment," which seemed closest, and after a while a person answered.

I explained my situation. I expressed concern that I could not actually use the health insurance for which I had enrolled and actually paid for.

The United Healthcare person expressed sympathy. He was here to help me. So I asked for assistance. Could he tell me when I would be receiving my cards?

He could not. He said that apparently (he was not sure himself) cards are only sent out after payment is tendered, so I would have to wait another "seven to ten business days."

In the interim, I asked, could I have my member and group number? That way I at least could sign up online, and actually give this information to any doctor I may need to utilize prior to receipt of the membership card.

Expert assistance was available
No, he could not.

However, he told me that if I called the billing information line, 800-708-2848, I could obtain the information that I requested.
I telephoned that number. A very nice lady said to me that she did not have the information that I requested, but that it would be available at another number that she provided: 877-856-2429. In other words, the number that I had just called.

At that point I  decided to go to the website that I had used to pay my bill.  There was a link on the left: "Ask the Expert." I decided to do so. At that link there was a form that could be used to contact United Healthcare. Four categories were given: "Account changes," "Coverage questions," "Payment Inquiry," and "Website Assistance."

Nonreceipt of insurance (and prescription, I imagine) cards and ignorance of one's member number did not seem to be covered by any of those choices. The closest seemed to be "Coverage questions," and below that, the subject that seemed closest was "confirm coverages." In the message field, I asked as follows
I have not yet received my ID cards for my wife and myself, and do not know my Member or Group Number. Please advise when the cards will arrive and, in the interim, please provide me with my Member and Group Numbers. Thank you.

I pressed the send button. At that point the "send" on the button turned into "please wait." I did. After a few seconds, the screen stated that my message had been submitted. That was good. "Please keep this request number. . . " it said. I reached for a pencil. But then I read on:



". . . (Error code 101) for Future Reference" it said.  My reference number was an error code? Below were the words "Unable to submit your request. Please try again later."

I tried again later and received the same result. I did so on subsequent days, and received the identical error code and message.

When I had spoken to the person at Member Services, he was reassuring. Not to worry, he said. I have insurance, he said. Even if I hadn't paid, he said, payment by Jan. 10 would assure me of coverage retroactive to January 1.

But in the interim, I asked, what do I do if I get sick? How do I prove to the doctor that I have coverage? How do I obtain prescription drugs? He did not have an answer to those questions.

© 2014 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
Please note that the comment function does not work, possibly because I've screwed up the settings. Drop me a line at the email address on the right side of this blog, and I'll include your comments.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss


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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Preet Bharara Pours Gasoline on the Fire

Protests continue in India over diplomat's arrest. Thank you, Preet Bharara!


The raging diplomatic incident that has breached relations between the U.S. and India--the arrest of a deputy counsel general on visa charges--continued to simmer on Wednesday. TV reports showed images straight out of the sixties, with protesters burning American flags and an effigy (above). Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement of regret, and the furor lead off  Erin Burnett's CNN broadcast (hosted by Chris Cuomo) at 7 p.m.

It seemed that cooler heads were prevailing--for a few minutes. Then a not-so-cool head, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, stepped in, and proceeded to pour a gallon of Exxon Unleaded on the raging fire.

Bharara, whose ham-handed prosecution of the diplomat--charges carrying a fifteen-year prison term--touched off this entirely unnecessary diplomatic rupture with a key U.S. ally, was apparently feeling the heat. Or, perhaps, he didn't think that soothing U.S.-India ties were a good idea. Or something.

In a gratuitously nasty statement emailed to reporters at 7:25 p.m., Bharara defended not just his prosecution of the Indian counsel, Devyani Khobragade, but also the body-cavity search which so enraged Indians. It was not carried out by his office, but not to worry, Bharara was mad as hell and not going to take all the "inaccuracies" in the media anymore.

The New York Times called it "an unusual and robust public defense," and reported that "the tone of Mr. Bharara’s statement, issued in the evening in New York, seemed in marked contrast to an expression of  'regret' made earlier in the day by Secretary of State John Kerry." That's putting it mildly.

In a way, you have to admire Bharara for stepping up to the plate and slamming one into the stands (albeit, the ones behind him) with quite so much vigor.  A more astute prosecutor, or one desiring to  repair this international incident, would have either kept silent or leaked to the media about how Khobragade was allowed to keep her cell phone and was given a cup of coffee by the arresting officers, etc.

Bharara ended his statement by saying that "this Office's sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law - no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are."

He might have added: "... unless they are major bankers who precipitated the financial crisis of 2008. In that case, I'll find an excuse not to prosecute them."

Predictably, India did not react favorably to Bharara's statement. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a response. CNN-IBN reported: "Taking a dig at the US Attorney prosecuting the case, MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said, 'The statement issued by Preet Bharara that the procedure followed in the Indian diplomat case is a standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor is a rhetorical remark and that is not conducisve in resolving inaccuracies.' " The Times of India reported further on the antagonism that Bharara generated  by his statement.

There's no question that India has overreacted, and also that there is another side to this story--the domestic worker whose complaint of underpayment resulted in this whole crisis. But there's a deeper issue here, one of judgment and prosecutorial priorities. It's been my belief for quite some time that Preet Bharara's are way out of whack. This whole episode not only confirms that, but shows that there is something seriously wrong with his judgment and temperament.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
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Please note that the comment function does not work, possibly because I've screwed up the settings. Drop me a line at the email address on the right side of this blog, and I'll include your comments.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss


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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Could Arrest of Indian Diplomat Sink Preet Bharara?

Won't prosecute "untouchables," but fierce against errant diplomats

For years, complaints have swirled around the most visible--and inexplicable--outcome of the 2008 financial crisis: Not a single financial executive has been prosecuted for doing engaging in any criminal activity. And no, I don't mean insider trading, a favorite of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. I mean the kind of stuff that almost sank the banking system.

PBS's Frontline, in a memorable special report, called them "The Untouchables."

Five years after the crisis, prosecutors here are supposedly "exploring new strategies for criminally charging Wall Street bankers who packaged and sold the bad mortgage loans behind the financial crisis," according to Reuters, but time is not on their side. The trail is going cold, and statute of limitation issues are going to start kicking in.

Bharara has famously focused on other kinds of wrongdoing--drug gangs in the Bronx, insider trading rings, and other wrongdoing not involving large, politically connected Wall Street banks. Most recently, his office arrested Devyani Khobragade, deputy consul general for India based in New York, for allegedly submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her housekeeper and paying the woman less than the minimum legal wage. She faces ten years in prison on one charge and five on another.

It seemed at first as yet another day at the office for Bharara, who I profiled for the Daily Beast in 2011. Another heavy-handed prosecution of a fairly routine immigration-law violation, aimed at deterring other transgressors, and also showing the public that the man is not entirely an empty suit. I mean, he is actually doing something. He may not be prosecuting people involved in the financial crisis, but at least he can nab people for visa transgressions.

I wonder if Bharara knew that he'd be touching off the worst diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and India--a crucial U.S. ally, for heaven's sake--in recent memory.

The Indians have gone ballistic. There was outrage that not only was Khobragade arrested, but strip-searched and tossed in the clink with dope addicts before forking over a steep $250,000 bail. The New York Times reported today that the U.S. ambassador was summoned for a strongly worded protest, and people in Delhi were furious. Indian authorities even removed the vehicle barriers that prevent car-bombers from driving into the U.S. Embassy grounds.

The Indian national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, used words like “despicable” and “barbaric,” and the Indian government retaliated in a way that harkened back to the Cold War, when India and the U.S. were barely on speaking terms:

In addition to removing the maze of concrete security barriers surrounding the American Embassy compound, Indian news reports said, officials demanded that the embassy provide details about all the Indians it employs, as well as the names and salaries of teachers at the American Embassy School; that the embassy commissary stop importing liquor; and that diplomatic identification cards for consular staff members and their families be returned.

Here's a video from NDTV of the barriers being removed outside the U.S. Embassy:



What's striking about this diplomatic crisis is that it was totally unnecessary. Expelling the diplomat, or arresting her while showing more sensitivity to Indian sensibilities (you'd think the Indian-born Bharara would be acquainted with them) would have had the same deterrent effect, without causing a rupture in U.S.-India relations.

And yes, it is a rupture.  Politicians from leading parties refused to meet a visiting U.S. congressional delegation, The Guardian reported. The leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party suggested arresting gay U.S. diplomats because homosexuality is illegal in India, the Times reported.

This is not to say that there isn't an element of hypocrisy in the Indian protest. As the Times points out, "It is not unusual in India for domestic staff to be paid poorly and required to work more than 60 hours a week; they are sometimes treated abominably. Reports of maids being imprisoned or abused by their employers are frequent."

But that's beside the point. The handling of Khobragade's case was inept, and  as ham-handed as his approach to Wall Street has been hesitant. Make no mistake: all this happened because of one man, the prosecutor who can't find a single major banker to prosecute, but seems to think that a deputy counsel general of a major U.S. ally should get ten years in prison for visa violations. Right now it is Devyani Khobragade who is in jeopardy, but I have to wonder if Bharara has sealed his own downfall with this prosecutorial overreaching.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
Please note that the comment function does not work, possibly because I've screwed up the settings. No problem. Drop me a line at the email address on the right side of this blog, and I'll include your comments.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Bernie Madoff



Today is the fifth anniversary of the Bernie Madoff scandal. Here is the blog item I wrote on it at the time.

Interestingly, the questions that I raised at the time--how did he do it and for how long--have never been satisfactorily and comprehensively answered in the years since.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Franz Kafka, Obamacare, and Me

He worked for two insurance companies.

I should preface this by saying that when I signed up for my 2014 health insurance last month on the New York exchange, four United Healthcare plans were available to me, in ascending order of price: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

I couldn't help but notice that the Silver plan was substantially better than the Gold plan. The annual deductible was less--just $500 for two people, vs. $1200 for the Gold plan. Copayments were less, as was the maximum out-of-pocket ($4000 vs. $8000).  Yet the Gold plan cost $235 a month more.

It made no sense whatsoever. I also thought it odd that this peculiarity was nowhere noted in any of the news media accounts of the New York debut of Obamacare. But my feeling at the time was that this was the System, and it was not to be questioned. I signed up for the Silver plan.

On Friday the first monthly bill for 2014 arrived in the mail. It contained no details of my insurance coverage, just a bill. The bill matched the amount stated on the website when I signed up for the plan some weeks ago. It described the Silver plan for which I signed up as "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS."

A perusal of the United Healthcare website for New York health exchange plans showed plan documents for 12 New York Silver plans. However, "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" was not there.

A Google search for "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" revealed that it did not exist.


The plan I signed up for did not exist

I telephoned the toll-free number provided on the website. I was connected to a customer service person after a short wait. I described the discrepancy to her. I pointed out to her that no health plan called  "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" was listed on the United Healthcare website.

The existence of this discrepancy  appeared to annoy this person. She behaved as if I was somehow withholding information readily available to me, or was too dimwitted to read plain English.

"Can you please tell me the plan that you signed up for?" she asked.

I pointed out to her, again, everything I had previously told her, including that the website called the plan merely "Silver EPO" but that I was billed for "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS."

That was impossible, she said to me. The website surely must have a more complete description of the plan than "Silver EPO." No, I responded, it did not.

She did not believe me.  She told me that no plan called "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" existed for New York State, and that no Silver plan had such a low annual deductible.

No supervisor was available

"If that's true, then what plan did I sign up for? What am I being asked to pay for?" I asked.

"I don't have that information," she said.

Would it help if I called the phone number listed on the bill?

"That's just the billing number," she said.

Could I speak to a supervisor?

"They have all gone home," she said. She promised that one would call me Monday morning.

I telephoned the New York Health Exchange. After an hour of waiting, during which time I was told repeatedly by a mechanical voice, "Your call is important to us," I was disconnected.

My call was important to them

I called back United Healthcare. I was promptly connected to a customer service representative. Her manner and tone were so different from the previous one that it was if she was from a different planet.

After hearing about the discrepancy, she pointed out to me that the New York Silver plan that I signed up for did indeed exist, but was not "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" but was actually " Silver EPO Rx 9.20.40 87AV CSR."

Yes, she said, the information on the New York Exchange website is and was correct. The deductibles are correct, as are the copayments and annual spending limits.

She said she did not know why it had a different name than the one stated on my bill, but assured me that it was the same one.

My fate remains uncertain
I questioned her closely. Her answers were clear and reassuring. Yes, the Silver plan is cheaper than the Gold plan. Yes it is better.  She had no explanation.

"A number of people have asked about that," she said.

I wasn't sure what to make of these two conversations. Was the System toying with me? Was I being punished? But if so, for what? What did I do? What was my crime? How would this end?

I will find out on January 1.

Note: Comments are accepted for this blog and as of this writing there was one published comment. However, perhaps not surprisingly, when I click on the "comment" button below I get a "not found" message.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Goodbye Marc Fagel, and Good Riddance

Routine news from the Securities and Exchange Commission yesterday: Marc Fagel, director of its San Francisco office, was leaving to become a partner with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a leading securities fraud defense firm.

It just seemed like yet another twirl of the revolving door. But it wasn't. This was actually the long-overdue departure of a quintessential example of the "captured regulator."

Fagel was the driving force behind one of the darkest chapters of the SEC's recent history: Its 2006 probe of research firm Gradient Analytics and its client Rocker Partners, and the subpoena of reporters who told the truth about the company that inspired the probe, Overstock.com, and its crazy CEO, Patrick Byrne.

Gradient's "crime" was that it questioned Byrne's management and Overstock's accounting and  earnings capacity, which was richly borne out by future events.

The probe was based on trumped-up allegations of collusion between Gradient and Rocker, as became clear when it emerged that the former Gradient employees who were the SEC's star witnesses -- as well as Byrne's, in a civil suit he had filed -- had been fired for cause. After all the publicity died down, Gradient and Rocker were quietly exonerated.

It was bad enough that Fagel, who spearheaded this wrong-headed witch hunt, let himself be led around by the nose by a CEO who was so unhinged that he directed lewd and obscene remarks to a reporter for Fortune, Bethany McLean, and fantasized that a fictional character from the Star Wars movies had ruined his business.

All this was known to Fagel, and he should have been canned for poor judgment. But on top of that idiotic Keystone Cops routine, there was the little matter of the subpoenas.

They were issued to three leading financial reporters, Herb Greenberg of Marketwatch, Jim Cramer of TheStreet.com,  and Carol Remond of Dow Jones News Service, who had been  critical of the company's management and accounting..

The subpoenas, which were whipped up by Fagel and other SEC lawyers who swallowed Byrne's conspiracy theories, were such a major embarrassment that they made the front page of the New York Times when they were withdrawn by SEC chairman Chris Cox. 

The shamefaced Cox actually scolded his own enforcement division for doing such a harebrained thing.

But it was even worse than it appeared to be at the time. At the same time that Fagel & Co. were chasing their tails at the behest of a nutty CEO, Bernie Madoff was ripping off his customers and the major Wall Street bankers, including many with large operations in San Francisco, were stealing from everyone in sight.

So what happened to the official who dreamed up this absurd waste of government resources? He was promoted in May 2008, just in time to not cover himself in glory during the financial crisis that was in the process of unfolding.

And now he's where he belongs, defending bad guys. Which was pretty much his role in the Gradient/Rocker investigation. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Fagel.

Byrne, meanwhile, has crawled back under a rock, emerging briefly in January when he was arrested for trying to carry a gun on a plane. Since he no longer can coax regulators to do his bidding, he has taken to crazy rants in his Deep Capture blog, which is run by the disgraced ex-journalist and fantasist Mark Mitchell.

Byrne and Mitchell are now ensconced in a libel suit in Canada that, I understand, will be keeping them both very busy through 2014. The suit against Byrne is such an open-and-shut case of craziness and fabrication -- a minor stock promoter was accused of Al Qaeda connections -- that none of Byrne's dwindling number of pals in the media, not even the Utah press corps, have taken up the cause.

Byrne has since stepped down for "medical reasons." I understand doctors have been probing a rupture in his conscience.

When Byrne was busted in that gun incident, a police report stated that he sleeps with a Glock by his side every night. That's odd. Why does he need a gun, or even a teddy bear, when he has an entire regulatory agency and the likes of Marc Fagel to do his bidding?

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

If You Don't Think We're in an Ayn Rand Nation.......

Read this:

Idaho State Senator thinks Ayn Rand should be required reading for high schoolers  - NY Daily News


© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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