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"You Can Legally Bribe a Government Official"

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CounterSpin interview with Lee Fang on Washington's revolving door

Lee Fang
Lee Fang
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Janine Jackson interviewed investigative reporter Lee Fang about Washington's revolving door for the July 24 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: When Eric Holder first joined law firm Covington & Burling in 2001, he was coming from a stint as deputy attorney general under Bill Clinton. So it's no wonder that when Holder went to the Obama administration as attorney general, the folks at Covington kept his seat warm.

And indeed, for many, Holder's seamless slide from theoretically prosecuting big banks to defending big banks from prosecution is a common-sense phenomenon only the hopelessly naive would bother to decry. He's a lawyer, what do you expect? was the substance of many a comment -- of what comment there was, because, again, this latest glimpse of the porous tissue between regulator and regulated went down as no news at all for most of the press.

Our next guest does find that revolving door newsworthy. Investigative journalist Lee Fang has been talking about money and politics for years; he's a co-founder of RepublicReport.org and writes at The Nation as well as The Intercept. He joins us by phone from the Bay Area.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Lee Fang.

Lee Fang: Hey, Janine. Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: Well, tell us first, if you would, a little bit about Covington & Burling. Who are they and who are some of their clients?

LF: Covington & Burling is a Washington, DC, law firm that also engages in lobbying; it's got an extensive practice that hires former members of Congress, their staff, former federal officials -- including of course, Eric Holder -- and it represents major corporations. So the firm has helped negotiate settlements for corporations that have been accused of wrongdoing, they've also helped secure legislation for their corporate clients and they've done a number of regulatory and lobbying acts that help provide their clients with special access to politicians.

JJ: And some of those clients have included some of the largest banks.

LF: Yeah, that's right. You know, a few years ago, Reuters had a great investigation that showed that Covington & Burling has not only represented the big banks -- Bank of America, CitiGroup, JP Morgan, Wells Fargo -- but they played a really special role in the foreclosure crisis, helping these banks set up a mortgage company that helped create a document trail. When banks have attempted to foreclose on companies and they have to produce these documents showing that they have a chain of title, then this third party company, known as MERS, produced these documents, in many cases falsified these documents, and Covington's role, actually, in the late '90s -- they provided the legal documentation to create MERS on behalf of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

JJ: Well, in thumbnailing Holder's tenure as attorney general, folks like the New York Times said, "His Justice Department wrested huge fines from banks, including JP Morgan Chase, Barclays and CitiGroup," but seen another way, Holder by some lights didn't so much try and fail to prosecute big banks as succeed in protecting them.

LF: That's right. As the inspector general of the Justice Department found, under Holder the Justice Department actually deprioritized mortgage fraud in their US attorney offices in New York, California and elsewhere. So there was a systemic attempt to shift the blame for the mortgage and financial crisis in 2008. Instead of the big banks, there were only criminal prosecutions of some small-time lenders and mortgage professionals, but the big banks that really had the responsibility behind the financial crisis, there was no effort to make any criminal referrals that we know of publicly and, of course, there were no prosecutions of any of the large banks responsible for the crisis.

JJ: Well, when you talk about Eric Holder going from Covington & Burling to the White House back to Covington & Burling back to the White House back to Covington & Burling, the response from many could be summed up, I think, as "duh." I mean, some of us don't forget 1992 Hillary Clinton saying, "For goodness sakes, you can't be a lawyer if you don't represent banks."

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