Goldman Exec Resigns, Blows Whistle on Company’s Loss of Morals

Goldman CEO Lloyd C. Blankfein

If you read just one thing today, it should be the remarkable open resignation letter of Goldman Sachs’ executive Greg Smith, who was head of  the firm’s U.S. equity derivatives business for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. After a highly successful 12 year career with Goldman, Smith — a Rhodes scholar — explains that felt he could no longer tolerate working Goldman because of the severe downward trajectory of its corporate culture, and the company’s loss of moral fiber. “I can honestly say that the environment [at Goldman] now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it,” he wrote, explaining that best interests of clients is now not even on Goldman’s radar screen. The only thing that matters now behind closed doors at Goldman, Smith says, is how to make money off of clients. The clients’ goals, desires and best interests are of absolutely no interest anymore. “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” Smith writes, confessing that over the previous 12 months he’s personally witnessed five different managers refer to their own clients as “muppets,” even doing so over corporate email.  He lays the blame for the company’s completely loss of integrity on the current CEO, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and Goldman’s president, Gary D. Cohn. Smith formally resigned the day his open letter was published in the New York Times.

Source: New York Times Op-Ed, March 14, 2012

How Do You Like it, Guys?

Ohio state Senator Nina Turner (D-Cleveland) has introduced a bill to regulate men’s access to erectile dysfunction (ED) drugs. The bill mandates that prior to getting a prescription for Viagra, Cialis or similar ED medications, men would have to undergo a session with a sex therapist, have a cardiac stress test and obtain a notarized affidavit signed by a sexual partner affirming impotency. Turner’s bill adheres to guidelines issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which recommend that prior to prescribing erectile dysfunction drugs, doctors determine whether a male patient’s sexual dysfunction is due to physical or psychological causes. Turner explains that she is concerned about men’s reproductive health, and says if state policymakers introduce bills subjecting women to ultrasound tests before getting an abortion, legislators should also be able to legislate male reproductive health issues.

The Lap Band Trap

One of the ubiquitous L.A. billboards advertising lap band surgery.

Billboards showing up across the U.S. encourage people to shed extra pounds by undergoing lap band surgery. The ads leverage people’s insecurities about their weight to drive them to an expensive and risky surgical solution. A particularly aggressive lap-band billboard campaign has plagued image-conscious southern California for months. Huge ads along L.A. freeways screamed, “Lose weight with the lap-band! Safe, 1-hour, FDA-approved. 1-800-GET THIN”. The ads made lap-band surgery sound fast and easy. They were also practically inescapable. One L.A. freeway had 25 lap-band billboards in just a four-mile stretch, and the boards were up for months alongside most of southern California’s freeways. They bore no information about the qualifications needed for the surgery, or the risks it poses — not even in fine print. People who dialed 1-800-GET THIN heard an automated greeting from a “celebrity physician” assuring them the lap band is approved by the FDA and is “extremely effective” at helping people lose weight. But just like the billboards, the telephone recording didn’t mention any risks, contraindications or qualifications to get the surgery. In addition to the ubiquitous billboards, 1-800-GET THIN ads also appeared in newspapers, on bus placards, on TV and the Internet, featuring people who claimed to have shed huge amounts of weight and regained control over their lives through lap-band surgery.

Dangerous Ads, Bad Doctors

Many people who called 1-800-GET THIN found they got more than they bargained for — way more, and not in a good way.  Laura Faitro was one of those people.

Ms. Faitro underwent the lap band surgery after calling 1-800 GET THIN. The procedure was performed in a day-surgery suite of an office building, and her insurance covered just $3,000 of the $12,200 cost. During the procedure, her doctor lacerated her liver and called other doctors in to assist him. He discharged Ms. Faitro shortly after her surgery, even though she complained of severe abdominal pain. Soon after the doctor sent her home, she had to go to the emergency room for her  abdominal pain. Five days later, Ms. Faitro was dead from “multi-organ failure due to shock secondary to bleeding and sepsis” in her abdominal cavity. Her husband, John Faitro, recently filed a class action against the surgery centers that advertised the procedure. But why a class action if this was an isolated case?

Because it’s not an isolated case.

Laura Faitro is one of at least five southern California patients who lost their lives after responding to the 1-800-GET THIN ads and having lap-band surgery done at one of the clinics affiliated with the ad campaign. The clinics were operated by two doctors, Michael and Julian Omidi, brothers affiliated with a Beverly Hills medical business called TopSurgeons. Investigation later revealed that Julian Omidi’s medical license had been revoked after the California Medical Board found he had lied on his license application. He omitted information from his application that would have led the Board to discover that, while attending the University of California at Irvine from 1986-1990, he had been expelled over his involvement in the burglary of exam papers. The California Medical Board also sanctioned Julian’s brother, Michael, with three years’ probation for gross negligence in his treatment of liposuction patients in 2005. Michael Omidi had improperly administered anesthetics, and allowed unlicensed staff to suture up patients and even perform liposuction.

In December, 2011, FDA took action against 1-800-GET THIN-affiliated clinics and their misleading ad campaign. That same month, FDA issued a warning to consumers about the fraudulent lap band surgery ads, and the risks and side effects of such surgery.  FDA has also issued warning letters to advertisers about misleading lap band surgery ads. In February, 2012, Allergan, manufacturer of the lap-band, announced that it would  stop selling the device to surgery centers affiliated with the 1-800-GET THIN ads. On February 8, 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported on a whistleblower lawsuit by two former surgery center employees who allege that clinics affiliated with the 1-800-GET THIN ads operated unsanitary surgical facilities and padded their bills with extra charges for medically unnecessary procedures and surgeries they never actually performed.

Widespread, Uncritical Promotion of Lap Band Surgery

Lap band billboard in Grand Junction, Colorado

Despite the lap-band surgery debacle unfolding in California, the multiple deaths associated with the lap-band and FDA’s growing number of warnings about lap-band ads and about the procedure itself, direct-to-consumer advertising for lap-bands is now spreading throughout the country. Messages pushing the surgery are targeting weight-conscious consumers across a range of media. On January 26, 2012, for example, an NBC TV affiliate in Grand Junction, Colorado, ran a completely uncritical local TV news story about lap-band surgery. The report focused on a single patient who so far has suffered no ill effects from the surgery. Like the ads that flooded L.A., the NBC story failed to mention any potential side effects, risks, qualifications or contraindications for the surgery, or FDA’s ongoing sanctions against advertisers for misleading ads that make the procedure sound quick and simple. Nor did the report mention lap-band patients’ deaths. Coincidentally, the NBC news report appeared at the same time billboards started showing up in Grand Junction promoting lap-band surgery. While the ads are less aggressive than California’s, they still lack any warnings about the risks or side effects of the procedure, as required by FDA. A call to the reporter at the Grand Junction NBC affiliate who did the lap band story said she was unaware that billboards promoting the procedure had gone up at the time she did the news report, and insisted the idea for the story was entirely her own.

Typical lap-band ad graphic

FDA continues to post consumer updates on the serious risks and side effects of gastric bands. They also post information about serious patient complaints about lap-bands, like this one, where a lap band slipped and left “three quarters” of the patient’s stomach “in a necrotic state.” The patient complained of throwing up for days, got dehydrated, and developed a rapid heart beat. It wasn’t until emergency surgery was done that doctors discovered her lap-band had slipped.

So far, advertisers have ignored FDA requirements that they make people aware of the dangers and side effects of bariatric surgery. That could be intentional. If they perform this type of operation purely as an elective surgery on people who don’t fit the medical qualifications, the surgery must be paid for out of pocket, without the involvement of insurance companies. That makes the procedure a cash cow for surgical centers and doctors who perform it, which explains the ubiquity of the ads promoting it.

Granted, lap band surgery has the potential to greatly benefit some people who are medically qualified for the procedure and who work with reputable doctors to have the surgery done properly, with appropriate follow-up care. But common sense dictates that the right way to decide to undergo a risky surgical procedure is not from reading roadside billboards put up by ruthless doctors who care more about money than patient care. Every surgical procedure has risks. Before considering gastric surgery, people need to do a lot of homework, ask a lot of questions, and thoroughly weigh the pros and cons. Lap-band surgery should draw even more scrutiny because of the insidious and dangerous way it is being marketed to large numbers of clueless people — many of whom, like so many of us, are undoubtedly insecure about their weight, and lack  a medical education.

 

DOJ Blocks Texas Voter ID Law as Unnecessary and Discriminatory

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) has blocked a new Texas voter ID law that requires citizens show photo ID before they can vote. Under the law, people had to produce a state-issued driver’s license, Department of Public Safety ID card or concealed handgun license before they could vote. Student IDs from Texas colleges and universities were not acceptable forms of ID. The state’s Republican-led legislature passed the law last year, making Texas one of eight states that have passed such laws. Texas legislators claimed the law was necessary to prevent voter fraud, but the DOJ found little evidence that voter fraud was enough of a problem in Texas to warrant the law. Justice Department officials, relying on Texas statistics, concluded that the law could have a discriminatory impact on minorities, particularly Hispanics. “Hispanics make up only 21.8 percent of all registered voters [in Texas], but fully 38.2 percent of the registered voters who lack these forms of identification.,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez.

Source: CNN, March 12, 2012

Know Your Slime

Photo of beef pink slime, provided by its manufacturer, Beef Products, Inc.

Mechanically-separated chicken

A photo that has been published recently alongside articles on “pink slime” — the highly-processed, barely-beef byproduct ABC News revealed last week is commonly added to hamburger — is not actually “pink slime,” but another scary byproduct called “mechanically separated chicken,” reportedly used to make chicken nuggets. A March 5 article on Common Dreams titled “What’s on the School Cafeteria Menu? ‘Pink Slime,’ ” for example, mistakenly showed a photo of mechanically-separated chicken pink slime while discussing beef-based pink slime. Mind you, it’s an easy mistake to make. Mechanically-separated chicken more closely resembles a pink slime than even beef pink slime. In the oft-circulated photo of mechanically-separated chicken, a ribbon of bright pink, gelatinous mixture oozes out of a huge spigot looking like a giant, curling stream of strawberry flavor self-serve yogurt.

Yuck.

But it isn’t beef-based pink stuff, it’s chicken-based pink stuff.

People need to get their slime photos straight, so readers are clear on which super-gross food byproduct big agribusiness is attempting to feed us.

What’s in Your Burger? Former USDA Scientists Say “Pink Slime”

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist-turned whistleblower Gerald Zirnstein revealed a dirty little secret of the meat industry to ABC News: 70 percent of  hamburger meat sold in grocery stores contains “pink slime,” a cheap and dangerous filler made of rejected beef trimmings that at one time were only used to make dog food and cooking oil. Pink slime is made from the least-desirable beef scraps, like connective tissue, tendons, and gristle. The scraps are ground up and simmered at low heat, then put in a centrifuge and spun to separate the fat from the meat. The resulting mixture is then sprayed with ammonia gas — ostensibly to to kill bacteria — then shaped into bricks, flash-frozen and shipped to grocers and meat packing companies where it is combined with ground beef. Understandably, the meat industry doesn’t like the name “pink slime.” It prefers to call the additive “lean, finely-textured ground beef.” Thanks to Joann Smith, USDA undersecretary under George W. Bush, pink slime doesn’t have to be labeled as a byproduct, either, and grocers don’t have to let consumers know it is in their meat. Smith made the decision to label the stuff “meat” against the urging of Zirnstein and another USDA scientist, Carl Custer, who call pink slime a “high risk product,” since the trimmings come from the most contaminated parts of many cows. In making her decision, Smith reportedly said that the mixture “is pink, therefore it’s meat.” While at USDA, Smith had ties to the beef industry. She was president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Association. ABC News found out that after Smith left the USDA in 1993, the manufacturers of pink slime, Beef Products, Inc., appointed her to its board of directors, where she has since made around $1.2 million over 17 years. After their report on pink slime, ABC News was inundated with questions from viewers about how to avoid the substance at grocery stores. The answer? Look for meat stamped “USDA Organic.” It is pure meat that contains no fillers. Everything else could contain pink slime since the law doesn’t require it to be revealed on the label.

Limbaugh Exhibits Bravado While Continuing to Hemhorrage Sponsors

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh is putting on a bombastic front as advertisers continue their exodus from his show in the wake of his incendiary string of insults against a third-year law student, Sandra Fluke, who testified before House Democrats in favor of Obama’s policy on keeping contraception available to women. The Hollywood Reporter noted that the three hour-long broadcast of Limbaugh’s show March 9 on New York’s station WABC 770 AM contained a total of five minutes of completely dead air time, and that the ads run during the show were mostly unpaid public service announcements. Of the 86 ads that aired, 77 were free public service announcements and seven were for sponsors who have already asked to remove their ads from the show. As of March 8th, 49 sponsors have asked to discontinue their ads on Limbaugh’s show. The most recent companies pulling out include The Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington, Aetna, TurboTax, O’Reilly Auto Parts, the American Heart Association, Constant Contact, the New York Lottery, Service Magic, AccuQuote, Regal Assets, Freedom Debt Relief. Other big-name companies that pulled their ads this week included Netflix, Goodwill Industries, Stamps.com, Capitol One, JC Penney, AOL and Sears. Two radio stations have also taken the Limbaugh show completely off their air. Limbaugh minimized the significance of the losses by boasting that he has 18,000 advertisers nationally when local advertisers are included. He equated the flood of advertisers who have already quit his show to “losing a couple of french fries in the container when its delivered to you at the drive-thru.”

Main Source: The Hollywood Reporter, March 8, 2012

Billionaire Koch Brothers File Lawsuit to Wrest Control of Cato Institute

Charles and David Koch — the billionaire industrialist brothers who already exert out-sized influence over American politics — are suing (pdf) to gain direct control over the Cato Institute, one of the country’s leading libertarian think tanks. Cato is a non-profit organization incorporated under Kansas law, which — unusually — allows it to be owned by a board of shareholders. Until recently Cato’s board consisted of four people — founder Ed Crane, Charles Koch, David Koch, and economist William Nikasen. Each held 16 shares valued at $1 per share. When Nikasen passed away in October, 2011, his shares fell to his widow, Kathryn Washburn, who has not yet offered to sell them to the other shareholders, as required by Kansas law. The Kochs are suing Washburn and the Cato Institute to force her to sell her shares to the other shareholders, which would give the Kochs a shareholder majority, and thus definitive control over Cato. The Kochs maintain that this is not a hostile takeover, (pdf) but the chair of Cato’s board, Bob Levy, said the Kochs — who now have the power to appoint half of the board — have been placing “operatives” on the board who are pushing Cato towards supporting Republican party ideals rather than libertarian ideals. Cato’s traditional libertarian stances on issues have often differed with Republican positions, for example by supporting same-sex marriage and hands-off foreign intervention and immigration policies. These more truly libertarian (and liberal) stances led to a falling-out between the Kochs and Cato over the years. But now the Kochs see their opportunity to gain more control over Cato. According to some close to the dispute, the Kochs want to use Cato to create more “intellectual ammo” for their front group, Americans for Prosperity, to use to defeat Obama in the 2012 general election. Some close to the dispute also say that if the Kochs successfully gain control of Cato, it will ruin the Institute’s credibility and lead to its demise.

Main sources: The Volokh Conspiracy, March 3, 2012, and Charles Rowley’s blog, March 4, 2012

U.S. Media Still Quiet on the Fallout from Fukushima

At the one-year anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear powerplant disaster, some American news outlets are still minimizing the seriousness of the event, if they even cover it at all. A March 1, 2012 New York Times article titled “Sizing Up the Health Impacts a Year After Fukushima,” reports that “experts” have concluded the “health impacts from the radioactive materials released in the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns will probably be too small to be easily measured.” There was no mention of a  70-page study (pdf) issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists on U.S. nuclear plant safety titled “Living on Borrowed Time” that reported on 15 near-misses that occurred at U.S. nuclear power plants in 2011. Many of those events happened because reactor owners either ignored known safety problems or took inadequate steps to prevent them. Also, in a February 25, 2012 articled titled “Fukushima — Worse than Chernobyl,” Janette Sherman and Joseph Mangano — she a specialist in internal medicine and toxicology with an emphasis on nuclear radiation and he the executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project — make the case that the U.S. media has engaged in a “selective blackout” on news following up on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster.  They conclude that not enough health and environmental data are being gathered after the Fukushima disaster to allow measurements of disease levels occurring as a result of the event. The two previously reported on a significant increase in infant deaths they noticed in the Pacific northwest following the Fukushima disaster. Based on their observations of the health and environmental impacts of Fukushima, Sherman and Mangano advocate ending all deaths and disease caused by nuclear power by closing remaining nuclear reactors.

Carbonite Ends It’s Sponsorship of Rush Limbaugh Show

Dave Friend,the CEO of the online backup service Carbonite, announced today that he was pulling his advertising from the Rush Limbaugh show in response to Limbaugh’s over-the-top insults against a third year law student who Friend says is about the same age as his own two daughters. Friend made the announcement via email to people who had contacted his company to complain about Carbonite’s sponsorship of Limbaugh’s show.