I have lots of interesting news and information to report from the Netroots Nation conference in Providence, RI this past weekend. So expect a series of posts over the next couple days.
But first, I wanted to address a couple stories coming out of Providence involving me and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s staff. I think they serve to paint a pretty sorry picture of our politics, with meaninglessness taking precedence over the core issues. But they also illuminate those issues in a way. So let me lay this all out to the best of my recollection.
My Netroots panel on foreclosure fraud was confirmed long before Schneiderman was announced as the Thursday keynote speaker for the conference. For backstory’s sake, let me say that I have in the past asked Schneiderman’s office, in particular two communications staffers who no longer work there, for interviews with the NYAG, and I’ve never had the request honored. Meanwhile, on a couple occasions journalists have called me asking them for help constructing questions for their Schneiderman interviews. So there was no point in asking Schneiderman to come on the panel; his staff, for whatever reason, doesn’t want him to talk to me. I actually did a tweet making the ask for panel participation the day the keynote session was announced, but that’s as far as it went.
Flash forward to Providence, Thursday. I hear about a pressure action that will be performed against Schneiderman at the keynote. I wrote a preview about it. And the pressure action did happen, with people waving “Jail the Bankers” signs as Schneiderman came out for the speech and throughout it, yelling on occasion for him to be tougher in his investigations, and at one point interrupting the NYAG. (I thought Schneiderman handled it well.) Neal Kwatra, the chief of staff for Schneiderman, has characterized that as a “support action” put together by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. All I’ll say to that is that, usually, a support action would have the supporters BEHIND the speechmaker, not in front of him, interrupting him and waving signs with messages at cross purposes with everything we know about the investigation at this point. But draw your own conclusions.
After the keynote, Kwatra, who was pacing the general session hall throughout the speech, walked by me and two other people, former SIGTARP and panel participant Neil Barofsky, and Rick Jacobs of the California Courage Campaign. Kwatra knows Rick, and he said hello. Rick, a inveterate party host, then introduced Kwatra to Neil and myself. We exchanged pleasantries.
Rick asked Kwatra, “How long is Schneiderman in town?” Kwatra said he would be there until midday Friday. At that point, I mentioned that I have this panel on foreclosure fraud in the morning, and it would be great if Schneiderman could participate, as we could make room. I fully expected the answer “no,” but I thought I’d take a shot. Kwatra just laughed. The conversation wrapped up and that was that.
The next morning, I opened the panel with a joke. I introduced the panelists, and then said that we may have one more guest, because I talked to Eric Schneiderman’s chief of staff yesterday and invited the AG to come on. So far he hadn’t made it, but I said we would leave a chair out for Elijah just in case. And there was much hilarity.
Zach Carter of the Huffington Post, who I’ve known for several years, was in the room. After the panel, he came up to me and asked if that was true about Schneiderman and the panel. I told him what I just told you, dear readers, in this post.
A few hours later, I get an email from Carter saying that Kwatra denied everything. ”100% untrue,” Kwatra said. I wrote back to Zach that I had two witnesses, included their email addresses, and told him that he could ask them directly. Both Jacobs and Barofsky corroborated the story.
The result is Zach’s story here. I should say that Zach writes his own stories, and I didn’t pitch it to him or anything. But I agree it’s newsworthy that a major chief of staff would apparently lie about something so small, so petty, and so meaningless. I say apparently lie, because it’s possible that something was misheard. But it should never have gotten to that point. I could think of a thousand ways to demur about the invitation without flatly denying it, especially after three sources corroborated it. ”The NYAG had other things on his schedule,” you could say, for example. ”It was a last-minute, informal invitation.” “The NYAG appreciates the pressure from the grassroots on this important issue.” (that’s lifted almost verbatim from his speech.) Why would you turn something this unimportant into an incident? It smacks of just bad service of the Attorney General, in my opinion.
I got some feedback on the story, which I linked to on Twitter but haven’t written about until now. One of the more interesting responses came from Adam Bonin, a Daily Kos writer and a board member at Netroots Nation. He told me that, during my panel, as he was outside in the hallway, someone associated with Schneiderman – he did not know who – came up to him and told him that they were hoping to get Eric over to the panel. Now perhaps that was another in a series of misunderstandings, perhaps it was someone not associated with Schneiderman at all having a bit of fun. But it’s indicative of all of the charges and counter-charges flying around this incident, as well as manic behind-the-scenes phone calls and emails, flowing mostly from the AG’s office.
It’s time to lower the temperature. I don’t care that Eric Schneiderman didn’t come on my panel. I don’t think he would have liked it. And I wish that everyone could pay more attention to the other 74:52 of the panel, the substance of it, rather than an 8-second joke (to be fair, most people at the conference did, including Carter, who wrote two other stories about the panel, for which I am grateful). Because every second focused on meaningless bullshit like this is a second we’re not focusing on the millions upon millions of homeowners, investors and ordinary Americans who have had their lives destroyed at the hands of systemic fraud across the mortgage and foreclosure process by the country’s largest banks.
And yet, there is a revealing aspect to all this. If Neal Kwatra was half as concerned about Jamie Dimon and Ken Lewis as he is about me, maybe his boss would have put them and their colleagues in prison by now. I have no idea how Schneiderman is receiving all this, or whether he’s receiving it at all. But I do believe that this level of service by staff is contributing to the ruination of this man’s public reputation.
If, in the coming months, we see real activity coming out of the investigation – setting aside the toothless settlement, which was a main subject of the discussion on the panel – then nobody will care about who said what in the back of a hall in the Providence Convention Center. But until that time, we can only go off the public record. And this sliver of it suggests that the greatest threat to the New York Attorney General, from the perspective of his chief of staff, is not the possibility of bank executives getting away with fraud, but some blogger who might point it out. To put it directly to Mr. Schneiderman, who I have not had the pleasure of speaking with: you might want to deal with the problem in your office.