Questions like: Why is Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment relating to Stormy Daniels likely to be the first for the former president and not one related to Jan. 6? Is House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in love with Trump or afraid of him? And, this big one: Will we see Trump do a perp walk?
Starting with the perp walk question, The New Abnormal political podcast co-host Andy Levy shares why he isn’t so hopeful with co-host Danielle Moodie on this all-Trump episode.
“I’ve seen supposedly serious people make this comment that we need to be worried about them charging Trump, because it may lead to riots in the streets. You already did that, first of all, [and] no, you don’t get a heckler’s veto if you break the law. If you break the law, you break the law,” says Andy. “That stuff cannot factor into charging someone, [but], it can factor into how you arrest them.”
“Trump was tweeting in all-caps about that they were debating whether to have him do a perp walk in handcuffs. That’s never gonna happen. We are never gonna see that, honestly, as much as I would enjoy it. We don’t really need that,” he adds, to Danielle’s dismay.
“I kind of do,” she jokes.
Then MSNBC legal analyst Katie Phang joins the show and gives Danielle insight into the “why this case?” question. According to Phang, a Trump indictment for something a while ago and not Jan. 6-related is still important.
“We need to appreciate the prosecution of the former President of the United States. Even if it’s for jaywalking. Why? Because you and I would be prosecuted for that crime.
“And so I am glad that even though this is an ‘old event,’ the payoff to Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet, to influence the outcome of the 2016 election may have been years ago, you know, damn it. I am glad. If he’s kicking his dog, he should be arrested and prosecuted. I believe this is the beginning of the fall of dominoes.”
Plus, Phang shares the indictment that she thinks will really “break the dam.”
Then, Jeff Sharlet, author of The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, tells Andy what he learned while writing about the post-Trump world—like how right-wing grandmas have nasty things to say about Hillary Clinton—and why he doesn’t actually care about Trump like other Trump-era writers.
U.S. grapples with forces unleashed by Iraq invasion 20 years later
Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay – March 16, 2023
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – From an empowered Iran and eroded U.S. influence to the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria to combat Islamic State fighters, the United States still contends with the consequences of invading Iraq 20 years ago, current and former officials say.
Then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s 2003 decision to oust Saddam Hussein by force, the way limited U.S. troop numbers enabled ethnic strife and the eventual 2011 U.S. pullout have all greatly complicated U.S. policy in the Middle East, they said.
The end of Saddam’s minority Sunni rule and replacement with a Shi’ite majority government in Iraq freed Iran to deepen its influence across the Levant, especially in Syria, where Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias helped Bashar al-Assad crush a Sunni uprising and stay in power.
The 2011 withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq left a vacuum that Islamic State (ISIS) militants filled, seizing roughly a third of Iraq and Syria and fanning fears among Gulf Arab states that they could not rely on the United States.
Having withdrawn, former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2014 sent troops back to Iraq, where about 2,500 remain, and in 2015 he deployed to Syria, where about 900 troops are on the ground. U.S. forces in both countries combat Islamic State militants, who are also active from North Africa to Afghanistan.
“Our inability, unwillingness, to put the hammer down in terms of security in the country allowed chaos to ensue, which gave rise to ISIS,” said former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, faulting the U.S. failure to secure Iraq.
Armitage, who served under Republican Bush when the United States invaded Iraq, said the U.S. invasion “might be as big a strategic error” as Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, which helped bring about Germany’s World War Two defeat.
The costs of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria are massive.
According to estimates published this week by the “Costs of War” project at Brown University, the U.S. price tag to date for the wars in Iraq and Syria comes to $1.79 trillion, including Pentagon and State Department spending, veterans’ care and the interest on debt financing the conflicts. Including projected veterans’ care through 2050, this rises to $2.89 trillion.
The project puts U.S. military deaths in Iraq and Syria over the past 20 years at 4,599 and estimates total deaths, including Iraqi and Syrian civilians, military, police, opposition fighters, media and others at 550,000 to 584,000. This includes only those killed as a direct result of war but not estimated indirect deaths from disease, displacement or starvation.
U.S. credibility also suffered from Bush’s decision to invade based on bogus, exaggerated and ultimately erroneous intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
John Bolton, a war advocate who served under Bush, said even though Washington made mistakes – by failing to deploy enough troops and administering Iraq instead of quickly handing over to Iraqis – he believed removing Saddam justified the costs.
“It was worth it because the decision was not simply: ‘Does Saddam pose a WMD threat in 2003?'” he said. “Another question was: ‘Would he pose a WMD threat five years later?’ To which I think the answer clearly was ‘yes.'”
“The worst mistake made after the overthrow of Saddam … was withdrawing in 2011,” he added, saying he believed Obama wanted to pull out and used the inability to get guarantees of immunity for U.S. forces from Iraq’s parliament “as an excuse.”
‘ALARM BELLS RINGING … IN THE GULF’
Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador in Iraq, said the 2003 invasion did not immediately undermine U.S. influence in the Gulf but the 2011 withdrawal helped push Arab states to start hedging their bets.
In the latest example of waning U.S. influence, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed on Friday to re-establish relations after years of hostility in a deal brokered by China.
“We just decided we didn’t want to do this stuff anymore,” Crocker said, referring to the U.S. unwillingness to keep spending blood and treasure securing Iraq. “That began … with President Obama declaring … he was going to pull all forces out.”
“These were U.S. decisions not forced by a collapsing economy, not forced by demonstrators in the street,” he said. “Our leadership just decided we didn’t want to do it any more. And that started the alarm bells ringing … in the Gulf.”
Jim Steinberg, a deputy secretary of state under Obama, said the war raised deep questions about Washington’s willingness to act unilaterally and its steadfastness as a partner.
“The net result … has been bad for U.S. leverage, bad for U.S. influence, bad for our ability to partner with countries in the region,” he said.
A debate still rages among former officials over Obama’s decision to withdraw, tracking a timeline laid out by the Bush administration and reflecting a U.S. inability to secure immunities for U.S. troops backed by the Iraqi parliament.
Bolton’s belief that removing Saddam was worth the eventual cost is not held by many current and former officials.
Asked the first word that came to mind about the invasion and its aftermath, Armitage replied “FUBAR,” a military acronym which, politely, stands for “Fouled up beyond all recognition.”
“Disaster,” said Larry Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff.
“Unnecessary,” said Steinberg.
(This story has been refiled to fix the spelling of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s name in paragraph 5)
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by William Maclean)
Texas announces takeover of Houston schools, stirring anger
Juan A Lozano and Paul J. Weber – March 15, 2023
HOUSTON (AP) — Texas officials on Wednesday announced a state takeover of Houston’s nearly 200,000-student public school district, the eighth-largest in the country, acting on years of threats and angering Democrats who assailed the move as political.
The announcement, made by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s education commissioner, amounts to one of the largest school takeovers ever in the U.S.
It also deepens a high-stakes rift between Texas’ largest city, where Democrats wield control locally and state Republican leaders have sought increasing authority in the wake of election fumbles and pandemic restrictions.
Other big cities including Philadelphia, New Orleans and Detroit in recent decades have gone through state takeovers, which are generally viewed as last resorts for underperforming schools and are often met with community backlash. Critics argue that past outcomes show little improvement following state interventions.
The state began making moves toward a takeover of the Houston Independent School District in 2019, following allegations of misconduct by school trustees, including inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts, and chronically low academic scores at one of its roughly 50 high schools.
The district sued to block a takeover, but new education laws subsequently passed by the GOP-controlled state Legislature and a January ruling from the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for the state to seize control.
Schools in Houston are not under mayoral control, unlike in cities such as New York or Chicago, but as expectations of a takeover mounted, the city’s Democratic leaders unified in opposition.
Most of Houston’s school board members have been replaced since 2019. District officials also say the state is ignoring academic strides made across city schools.
Race is also an issue because the overwhelming majority of students in Houston schools are Hispanic or Black. Domingo Morel, a professor of political science and public services at New York University, has studied school takeovers nationwide and said the political dynamics in Texas are similar to where states have intervened elsewhere.
The demographics in Houston, Morel said, are also similar.
“If we just focus on taking over school districts because they underperform, we would have a lot more takeovers,” Morel said. “But that’s not what happens.”
Texas Lawmakers Have a New Scheme to Punish Renewables and Prop Up Fossil Fuels
Molly Taft – March 14, 2023
Texas Republicans are at it again. Last week, Republican politicians in the state legislature introduced a package of bills intended to punish renewable energy and boost fossil fuels, despite the fact that Texas is currently one of the nation’s top generators of renewable power.
On Thursday, Texas state senators Charles Schwertner and Phil King introduced nine bills that they said would help solve issues with Texas’s beleaguered power grid. According to the Dallas Morning News, the bills include one that would create up to 10,000 megawatts of natural gas-fueled generation; one to smooth out what Schwertner said were pro-wind and solar “market distortions” that federal tax breaks create; one to get rid of any remaining state tax credits for renewables; and one that would limit new renewable energy facilities being built based on how much natural gas facilities are also being built, in an attempt to keep natural gas competitive.
As the Dallas Morning News reported, Texas leadership are all for these types of measures. Earlier this month, Governor Greg Abbott said he would not allow wind and solar companies to get corporate tax breaks under a new state program. Meanwhile, last week Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick praised the bills at the press conference, saying in a release that they will “fix the Texas power grid once and for all.” Patrick said that he has designated two of the bills—the one to create the new natural gas generation and one dealing with the “market distortions”—as part of his hand-picked suite of 30 priority bills that he would be pushing during this legislative session.
What’s truly wild about this set of possible laws is just how well renewable energy is doing in Texas. Last year, the state was the number one producer of wind energy in the country and the number two producer of solar. The International Energy Agency predicted last year that renewables’ work on the grid could grow even more in 2023, pushing natural gas use down.
“These bills will subsidize those dirty energy sources at a big cost to consumers and the environment,” Luke Metzger, executive director at Environment Texas, told Earther in an email. “Folks at the Texas Legislature used to speak of the importance of not picking winners and losers in the energy marketplace. Well, that’s exactly what these bills do. The state of Texas is dispensing with the free market to subsidize polluting power plants and discriminating against wind and solar energy.”
The Texas power grid’s issues are a hell of a lot more complex than ‘renewables bad, fossil fuels good.’ It’s going to take more uncomfortable reforms to iron out what actually is going to work for the state, but we can count on Republicans to take any opportunity to use renewable energy as a political punching bag.
Exclusive-Ukraine accuses Russian snipers of abusing child, gang raping mother
Stefaniia Bern and Anthony Deutsch – March 14, 2023
KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine has accused two Russian soldiers of sexually assaulting a four-year-old girl and gang raping her mother at gunpoint in front of her father, as part of widespread allegations of abuse during the more than one-year-long invasion.
According to Ukrainian prosecution files seen by Reuters, the incidents were among a spree of sex crimes Russian soldiers of the 15th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade committed in four homes of Brovary district near the capital Kyiv in March 2022.
Russia’s Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Phone numbers listed for the brigade were out of order. Two officials at the Samara Garrison, of which the brigade is a part, said they were unable to give contacts for the unit when contacted by Reuters, with one saying they were classified.
During Moscow’s failed push to capture Kyiv after its Feb. 24 invasion, soldiers entered Brovary a few days later, looting and using sexual violence as a deliberate tactic to terrorise the population, the Ukrainian prosecutors said.
“They singled out the women beforehand, coordinated their actions and their roles,” said the prosecutors, whose 2022 documents were based on interviews with witnesses and survivors.
Most of the alleged atrocities took place on March 13, when soldiers “in a state of alcoholic intoxication, broke into the yard of the house where a young family lived,” the prosecutors alleged.
The father was beaten with a metal pot then forced to kneel while his wife was gang raped. One of the soldiers told the four-year-old girl he “will make her a woman” before she was abused, the documents said.
The family survived, though prosecutors said they are investigating additional crimes in the area including murders during the same period.
President Vladimir Putin’s government, which says it is fighting Western-backed “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine, has repeatedly denied allegations of atrocities. It has also denied that its military commanders are aware of sexual violence by soldiers.
The soldiers were both snipers, aged 32 and 28, the files said, adding that the former had died while the younger, named as Yevgeniy Chernoknizhniy, returned to Russia.
When Reuters asked for the identities of both soldiers, prosecutors provided only the name of the younger man. When Reuters called a number in online databases for him, a person saying he was Chernoknizhniy’s brother said he was deceased.
“He died. There’s no way you can get hold of him,” said the man, crying. “That’s all that I can say.”
Reuters was unable to independently confirm his assertion.
The two snipers were among six suspects accused in the Brovary assaults, which prosecutors say is one of the most extensive investigations of sexual abuse since the invasion.
After the alleged attack on the girl and her parents, the two soldiers entered the house of an elderly couple next door, where they beat them, prosecutors said, also raping a 41-year-old pregnant woman and a 17-year-old girl.
At another location where several families lived, the soldiers forced everyone into the kitchen and gang raped a 15-year-old girl and her mother, they said.
All the victims survived, prosecutors said, and were receiving psychological and medical assistance.
A pre-trial investigation is ongoing into the possible role of superior officials in the Brovary attacks, prosecutors said, in a case adding to growing allegations of systematic sexual abuse by Russian soldiers.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office says it is investigating more than 71,000 reports of war crimes received since Russia sent tens of thousands of troops over the border.
Ukrainian investigators know the probability of finding and punishing suspects is low and potential trials would be mainly in absentia, but there are also international efforts to prosecute war crimes including by the International Criminal Court.
While suspects are unlikely to be surrendered by Moscow, anyone convicted in absentia may be placed on international watchlists, which would make it difficult to travel.
Russia has also accused Ukrainian forces of war crimes, including the execution of 10 prisoners of war.
A U.N. human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine has said that most of the dozens of sexual violence accusations pointed at the Russian military.
So far, Ukrainian prosecutors have convicted 26 Russians of war crimes – some prisoners of war, some in absentia – of which one was for rape.
(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam and Stefaniia Bern in Kyiv; Additional reporting by Anton Zverev and Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Cawthorne)
A Florida mother and daughter bought a house, 2 cars with a dementia patient’s $542,000
David J. Neal – March 13, 2023
Two Southwest Florida women hired to care for a 92-year-old woman with dementia instead cared only for the $542,760 they could steal from her financial accounts over two years. With that money, they bought a five-bedroom, four-bathroom house, two cars, paid off student loans and made credit card payments.
That’s all in the plea agreements of Cape Coral’s Diane Durbon, 58, and daughter Brittany Lukasik, 29, each of whom pleaded guilty in Fort Myers federal court to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Lukasik also pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return because, as generations of criminals back to Al Capone have learned, the IRS still counts criminal income as income to be reported.
Mother and daughter each are free on $50,000 bond, have handed over their passports and can’t leave the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida before sentencing.
What follows comes from Durbon and Lukasik’s plea agreements.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-10-1/html/r-sf-flx.html
Just before Lukasik became a licensed registered nurse in 2016, they were hired by a woman to take care of her aunt “T.H.,” a 92-year-old with dementia. Durbon and Lukasik would get a combined $2,400 a month to stop by T.H.’s North Fort Myers home daily, make sure she ate and “provide … social interaction.”
In October 2017, Durbon put T.H. on the phone with Vanguard as part of a plan to get into T.H.’s Vanguard investment accounts.
“A review of interior surveillance video footage from cameras Durbon had installed inside of T.H.’s home showed Durbon putting a script that contained the answers to the Vanguard security questions in front of T.H. before and during each phone call,” Durbon’s plea agreement says. “Additionally, before some of the calls, Durbon was captured on surveillance pointing to different portions of the script to prepare T.H. for the call.”
After coaching T.H. into authorizing Durbon as her spokesperson, Durbon moved money from the investment accounts to a prime market money account. That checking account powers allowed Durbon to order many checks (using the excuse that T.H. didn’t like to be out of checks) and write checks worth $1,000 to $9,600 to Lukasik. In this manner, the fraudulent family stole $231,659 from T.H. between November 2017 and July 2019.
During that time, in November 2018, Durbon got into T.H.’s TransAmerica annuity policy, using a similar coaching-and-phone call method to get T.H. to cash out the annuity. When TransAmerica questioned Durbon about her actions, she said T.H. was her aunt.
Durbon’s fraud induced TransAmerica to issue a $244,521 check to T.H. That check got put in T.H.’s Wells Fargo account, from which 92 checks totaling $372,092 were issued to Lukasik between February 2019 and March 2020.
What fraud on the Florida family plan bought
With the stolen money, Lukasik paid off $29,000 in student loans and made $100,000 of credit card payments. She spent $17,735 to pay off her 2016 Nissan Rogue and bought mom a 2018 Nissan Rogue for $26,354. In March 2019, she bought a five-bedroom, four-bathroom duplex at 544/546 SE Fifth Ave. in Cape Coral, then spent $100,000 on electronics, furnishings and remodeling.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Secret Service and the IRS-Criminal Investigation unit investigated the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Trent Reichling handled the prosecution.
With demands for a bank bailout, Silicon Valley shows its ‘small government’ mantra was just a pose
Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times– March 13, 2023
For decades, the dominant mantra of Silicon Valley’s powerful has been that government is just a drag on their innovative spirit. Get regulators off our backs, they’ve argued, and we’ll improve people’s lives to an indescribable degree.
Not at the moment. The same investors and entrepreneurs who argued for less government and less regulation in the past successfully lobbied for a government bailout of Silicon Valley Bank, which failed Friday as a result of astoundingly imprudent business practices.
Driving their demands were the financing issues facing thousands of SVB corporate and individual customers who collectively had more than $150 billion of their cash on deposit at the bank under conditions that left it largely uninsured against the bank’s collapse.
This specific industry could exceed$30 billion by 2025 The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. insures individual and business deposits up to $250,000 per depositor. Many of the bank’s depositors had cash balances at SVB of hundreds of millions of dollars each.
Dispensing with that limit, the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department and FDIC announced Sunday that all SVB depositors would have access to all their money on Monday. Previously, the FDIC said it would make only the insured balances available Monday, with the balances to be repaid later and possibly not entirely.
The three agencies said no taxpayer funds would be spent on the rescue. The repayments will come from the sale of SVB’s assets, which include treasury securities, with any shortfall covered by an FDIC assessment on its member banks. The agencies may have concluded that there were enough assets on the bank’s balance sheet to cover all deposits, once the assets are sold.
This isn’t a “bailout” by the government, since SVB’s shareholders may yet be the losers; they’re not covered by the regulators’ relief program.
As it happens, the government has turned out to be the savior of Silicon Valley’s small-government libertarians in this crisis. The FDIC is one of many programs launched during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that preserve Americans’ livelihoods and way of life during a crisis, and that conservatives have been trying to undermine since the 1930s.
As we reported last week, the sudden collapse of SVB resembled almost all bank runs of the past — the accumulation of huge sums of deposits that could be withdrawn on demand, backed by long-term investments that could retain their value only if held to maturity.
On Thursday, the bank announced that it needed to raise more than $2 billion in new capital, largely because long-term securities it had put up for sale had lost billions in value as interest rates rose over the last year or more.
The announcement spooked venture investor Peter Thiel and venture firms, which advised their portfolio companies to pull their cash out of the bank.
The result was an incredible $42 billion in withdrawals initiated that day, a torrent that rendered the bank almost instantly insolvent.
California regulators and the FDIC shuttered the bank Friday morning. When that happened, the shaky foundations of the bank’s business model were exposed to daylight, and the cries for a government bailout of its customers swiftly followed.
The context of these events was a fundamental change in the economics of the high-tech and biotech companies the bank served. As interest rates moved higher, its clients had more difficulty raising funds from private investors and therefore relied more on their cash balances at the bank. Their markets shrank, intensifying the rate at which they were burning cash.
It’s not unusual for a crisis to turn people’s most cherished beliefs on their head. The old joke says a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, and a liberal is a conservative who’s been sent to jail. An old military saw has it that “there are no atheists in foxholes,” an insight that investment commentator Barry Ritholtz expands to read, “there are also no Libertarians during a financial crisis.”
One other immutable principle of American capitalism is at play: The goal in business to privatize profits and socialize losses. In other words, when things are good, companies will keep their profits for distribution to shareholders. When things turn sour, the cry is heard for government to step in with bailouts and subsidies.
What’s overlooked in this case is that Silicon Valley Bank’s problems were in part the consequence of a Trump-era deregulation movement in banking that was fully backed by the banking industry and the management of — yes — Silicon Valley Bank itself. More on that in a moment. But first, let’s call the roll of small-government advocates who got their wish for a big-government bailout.
Start with billionaire hedge-fund operator Bill Ackman, who has advocated for self-regulation by the crypto-currency sector and has pushed back against efforts by the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate one of his investment funds. Ackman went all-in for Donald Trump after Trump’s election in 2016, gushing that the U.S. has been “undermanaged for a very long period of time. We now have a businessman as president.”
In a lengthy tweet Saturday, Ackman flayed banking regulators for “allowing [SVB] to fail without protecting all depositors,” which he called “a-soon-to-be-irreversible mistake.”
He added, “Already thousands of the fastest growing, most innovative venture-backed companies in the U.S. will begin to fail to make payroll next week. Had the gov’t stepped in on Friday to guarantee SVB’s deposits … this could have been avoided and SVB’s 40-year franchise value could have been preserved.”
Then there’s David Sacks, an intimate of Thiel and Elon Musk, who were his partners in establishing and growing PayPal. Sacks and his friends have promoted a worldview that opposes progressive laws and regulations, including those aimed at reining in economic inequality.
Appearing on Megyn Kelly’s Sirius XM satellite show June 7, the day of the successful recall vote against San Francisco’s progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin — a recall movement Sacks helped to finance — he called Democrats “useful idiots for the Chinese Communist Party.
“By this weekend Sacks was squealing: “Where is Powell? Where is Yellen? Stop this crisis NOW. Announce that all depositors will be safe.” (His references are to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen.)
Venture investor Brad Gerstner called in a tweet for the Federal Reserve to “act now to make sure depositors are 100% protected.” In a second tweet, he asserted that the savings of thousands of small investors are at risk “just [because] the system failed.”
That drew a horselaugh from veteran investor Jim Chanos, whose experience as a short-seller has given him a uniquely percipient feel for Wall Street foibles. “The chutzpah here beggars belief,” Chanos replied on Twitter.
Chanos observed, accurately, that it was venture investment firms that actually launched the run on SVB on Thursday, when they suddenly urged their companies to pull their deposits from the bank, triggering the $42-billion outflow. “And they now want the Taxpayer to bailout their investments…?! Capitalism, Silicon Valley-style.”
It’s not only the entrepreneurial brotherhood demonstrating that, to quote what has become known as Miles’ Law, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
Consider former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, who last year was heard disdaining President Biden’s student loan relief as inflationary. His argument was that the $10,000 to $20,000 in proposed relief “consumes resources” better used to help those who don’t attend college, and invites colleges to raise tuitions.
By Friday, however, Summers was saying that it’s “absolutely imperative” that “all depositors be paid back and paid back in full.” Interestingly, the same cadres who argue that student loan borrowers should have known what they were getting into when they took out their loans were able to overlook that Silicon Valley Bank depositors should have known that deposits beyond $250,000 are uninsured and therefore not guaranteed to be paid back.
(Miles’ law was coined by then-federal budget official Rufus E. Miles Jr. in the 1940s, after he noticed that after his most hard-nosed budget examiner took a job at one of the agencies he had criticized, the examiner became that agency’s most devoted defender against the unwarranted critiques from the budget office.)
Libertarian-minded Silicon Valley types have been trying to blame the bank’s collapse on the Fed. Cryptocurrency promoter Balaji Srinivasan, for example, complained that “Powell said that he wouldn’t raise rates in April, June, July, and Oct 2021 … People trusted him … And that’s how the Fed caused the crisis.”
That’s absurd, of course. The Fed began its sequence of interest rate increases in March 2022 and brought them higher by 4.75 percentage points from then through January this year. At every step the central bank made its intentions crystal clear. By early 2022, people “trusted” that the Fed was on a long-term rate tightening campaign. Absolutely no one had a right to be surprised.
Two key factors in the SVB disaster can’t be overlooked: The incompetence of the bank’s management and the improvidence of its customers.
The value destruction taking place in the bank’s holdings of long-term securities was written in bright red on its ledger books. With the prospect of interest rate increases continuing through 2022 and into this year, its management had no excuse for failing to unwind its holdings well before now instead of waiting.
Under regulations implemented in accordance with the Dodd-Frank banking reform law of 2010 safety-and-soundness standards were tightened for banks with more than $50 billion in assets.
Those larger banks were required to submit annual disclosures to the Fed, meet stricter liquidity and risk management requirements, and undergo “stress testing” that would reveal how they would fare under extreme financial scenarios.
Mid-sized banks launched a vigorous lobbying campaign to raise that threshold. In testimony submitted to the Senate Banking Committee in 2015, Greg Becker, the chief executive of Silicon Valley Bank, called for raising the threshold as high as $250 billion.
Becker’s statement bristled with the buzzwords and catchphrases beloved of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. He asserted that without the change, the regulations would be so burdensome that “SVB will likely need to divert significant resources from providing financing to job-creating companies in the innovation economy.”
Becker referred to “SVB’s deep understanding of the markets it serves, our strong risk management practices, and the fundamental strength of the innovation economy.”
As it happens, SVB plainly didn’t understand how the markets it serves were vulnerable to lock-step flight from its deposit accounts, had weak or paltry risk-management practices, and failed to recognize that the innovation economy has its ups and downs.
The industry’s lobbying yielded fruit. President Trump raised the Dodd-Frank threshold in 2018. At the signing ceremony, Trump labeled the regulations “crushing.” He said, “Those rules just don’t work.”
Actually, they would have worked well for Silicon Valley Bank, which exceeded the $50-billion asset threshold in 2017 and never reached the $250-billion level, having topped out last year at $211.7 billion in assets. Had the old rules remained in place, it would have become subject to stricter oversight no later than 2018. Regulators might have noticed its rapid growth and the shortcomings of its risk profile. But they never had the chance.
Finally, the customers. SVB evidently required some of its Silicon Valley borrowers to do all their banking through the bank as a condition of their loans. According to its annual disclosures, the bank paid an average of 2.2% on savings and checking accounts last year; that’s higher than most commercial banks, but not high enough to compensate for the risk of uninsured cash deposits.
Some companies have reported uninsured balances of hundreds of millions of dollars sitting at SVB. It’s not unusual for businesses to have sizable balances in bank accounts exceeding the insurance cap. But prudent companies spread their deposits around, so they’re not mortally exposed to the failure of any one depository institution.
Multiple options exist for parking cash, such as investing in short-term government securities, money market instruments and corporate commercial paper. None of these is government-insured, but they offer diversification and a cushion against a single bank’s implosion.
With the debacle apparently resolved, the bank’s clients and their employees can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with a well-regulated banking system. Even at the businesses whose leaders lobbied to make banking less safe for everyone.
Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Fifteen Years After 2008, Why Do Banks Keep Failing?
Peter Coy – March 13, 2023
The weekend rescue of uninsured depositors in Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank was absolutely essential and absolutely frustrating. We have to stop getting ourselves into these messes, people.
If the federal government hadn’t given a blanket of protection to all deposits, companies that had deposits in either of the banks above $250,000, the maximum that’s insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., would not have been able to pay their workers. Start-ups that bank with Silicon Valley Bank would have been imperiled. “It could have destroyed early-stage biomedical research in this country for a decade,” said Karen Petrou, the managing partner of the consulting firm Federal Financial Analytics, who sits on the board of a biomedical research foundation.
The damage could have been far greater. Depositors at other banks were beginning to panic, worrying that their banks would be next to fail and looking for safer places to stash their cash. We were looking at the early stages of a generalized bank run that would have done serious damage to the U.S. economy. Even a healthy bank can be destroyed overnight if all its depositors demand all their money at once. The only way to arrest the panic was for the government to assure all depositors that there was no need to yank from the bank.
Even after the emergency intervention, markets remained unsettled on Monday. Bank stocks were down. Economists at Capital Economics reported “worrying signs of incipient strains in core money markets.” Interest rates fell as investors speculated that the Federal Reserve might curb its rate-raising campaign to relieve pressure on banks (a concern I wrote about on Friday). A scare such as this one has lasting consequences.
True, the government didn’t bail out everyone involved. Shareholders in the banks are wiped out and members of senior management were fired. That’s fair — and contrasts with what happened during the 2008 global financial crisis, when the government propped up shaky banks while leaving management and shareholders in place.
Whether taxpayers helped pay for the rescue is a matter of semantics. On Monday, President Biden told reporters, “No losses, and this is an important point, no losses will be borne by the taxpayers.” Still, the government — and by extension, taxpayers — is providing a valuable guarantee to the banking system. The fact that any government expenditures will eventually be recouped through higher insurance premiums doesn’t take away from that. Also, the Federal Reserve is promising to support troubled banks by buying bonds from them at face value rather than their current depressed market price. Not a bailout, exactly, but certainly a good deal.
The real question is why this keeps happening. After the global financial crisis, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The Federal Reserve raised safety standards for banks, especially ones that are deemed “systemically important.” There’s a Financial Stability Oversight Council that’s supposed to take a broad view of risks in the system.
It clearly wasn’t enough. It didn’t help matters that bank lobbyists got Congress and regulators to roll back some measures that they regarded as onerous. For example, a 2018 law signed by President Trump — which was passed by Congress with bipartisan support — spared banks with $100 billion to $250 billion in assets from the highest level of scrutiny. Hard to say, but Silicon Valley Bank — which lobbied for the law — might still be with us if it weren’t for that law.
There are lots of things that could be done to improve banking supervision, require thicker capital cushions and so on, but for now I’d like to focus on the question of the day, which is what to do about uninsured deposits.
The theory in banking is that big depositors have the financial sophistication and the incentive to make sure that the banks where they keep their money are safe. Keeping deposits uninsured above a certain threshold is thus supposed to be a kind of market discipline, supplementing the supervision by state and federal regulators. But that was never a realistic expectation for most depositors, who have other things on their minds. Plus, because big depositors know that they’ll be protected when push comes to shove, they have no incentive to seek out safe banks.
This is hardly a new problem. In 1991, Jerome Powell, now the chair of the Federal Reserve, was a senior official in the Treasury Department who was assigned to deal with the collapse of the Bank of New England Corp. As he recounted in a 2013 speech: “We came to understand that either the F.D.I.C. would protect all of the bank’s depositors, without regard to deposit insurance limits, or there would likely be a run on all the money center banks the next morning — the first such run since 1933. We chose the first option, without dissent.”
Under the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act of 1991, the F.D.I.C. is required to resolve bank failures in the way that incurs the least cost to the deposit insurance fund, even if that means wiping out uninsured depositors. But in practice, uninsured depositors almost never get wiped out because the F.D.I.C. arranges for a stronger bank to acquire the failed one, assuming all of its deposits. The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 made an explicit exception to the least-cost test for cases of “systemic risk” — that is, if complying with the least-cost test “would have serious adverse effects on economic conditions or financial stability.” That’s the exception that the government invoked for Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank.
If market discipline works in theory but not in practice, one alternative is to bow to reality and explicitly insure all bank deposits. It would certainly lessen the number of panics such as the one that killed Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, without giving banks carte blanche to behave irresponsibly. One person who favors that solution is Robert Hockett, a professor at Cornell Law School, who has written twopieces about the idea for Forbes recently. The F.D.I.C. premiums are higher for riskier banks, which makes sense. Given that the F.D.I.C. already takes risk into account, Hockett told me, the $250,000 limit is “vestigial, like the human tailbone.”
Insuring all bank deposits would make banks look more like public utilities, Petrou told me. She said she’d prefer relying more on market discipline, as originally intended. But that ship may already have sailed.
Dating back to 1935, the park was first used by members of a traveling circus, some say, and baseball great Babe Ruth once owned a home at 402 Church Ave., that later burned down, the Bradenton Herald reported in 1990.
It’s a tight-knit group of residents, some full-time, but many seasonal. The park bumps up against Sarasota Bay. Bridge Street and Bay Drive both run through it. Visitors often walk through, taking in the local color of one of Anna Maria Island’s last two trailer parks.
It’s a throwback to the Florida of yore.
Bradenton Beach City Hall sits a few blocks to the west.
“It’s sad. We are extremely hopeful residents will be able to work out a deal with the property owner,” Mayor John Chappie said. “The Pines is really a community within a community.”
Trailer park residents respond
Pines Trailer Park and Sandpiper Mobile Resort, 2601 Gulf Drive N., also in Bradenton Beach, are the last remaining trailer parks on Anna Maria Island.
For some of the residents of Pines Trailer Park, it is the only home they have, said Linda Maerker, president of the tenant’s association.
She worries for them.
“You know the price of real estate. It’s sad,” she said.
Maerker and her husband have wintered in Pines Trailer Park for 15 years.
“This place is so important to so many people,” she said. “It’s a family. We have become very close.”
Maerker calls the park her healing place after some tragedies in her life.
Ranae Ratajczak has lived in the park for 13 years, spending six months a year there.
“It’s our happy place, our piece of paradise,” Ratajczak said.
“Our hope is to become owners of the park. There is a lot of history here. We want to keep it as it is, as a mobile home park,” she said.
History of Pines Trailer Park
This is not the first time that park owners have offered to sell the park to residents.
In 2002, the owners also offered residents a chance to buy the park, according to records filed with the Manatee County Clerk of Court’s Office.
George and Grace Bagley started Pines Mobile Home Park — named after the Australian pine trees in the area — in 1935 and the park has had many owners over the years, according to Jonathan Torkos, historical resources librarian for the clerk’s office.
At its opening in 1935, the Bradenton Herald reported that it was a “new and strictly modern tourist camp” with a community hall, dance hall, restaurant and laundry. Budweiser was offered on draft, according to a newspaper advertisement.
In 1936, thieves entered the washroom of the park and stole all the plumbing, the Bradenton Herald reported.
In 1948, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Hively sold the park to Mr. and Mrs. James Ashby for $25,400.
One of the subsequent owners, Mr. and Mrs. Glen Fifer, sold the park in 1956 for $55,000 to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bisbee.
In 1962, Bradenton Beach’s then-mayor Victor Reinel sold the park to Mildred Henri and Forrest J. and Elizabeth Lincoln for $150,000, the Bradenton Herald reported.
Jackson Partnership has been the owner of the trailer park since 1976.
They bought their dream homes from the ‘King of Coconut Grove.’ They still can’t move in
Linda Robertson – March 12, 2023
Twelve new townhouses line a block of Coconut Avenue. Lushly landscaped, outfitted with high-end appliances and spacious closets, they’re in move-in condition. Yet the Coconut City Villas are empty, as empty as their backyard swimming pools and unsullied trash bins sitting in unoccupied driveways.
Instead of “For Sale” signs, house hunters see “No Trespassing” notices posted along the street and “Do Not Enter” decals stuck to the front doors, a curious contrast in Coconut Grove, one of the most hotly desired neighborhoods in the country, where housing prices have nearly doubled over the past three years.
The lack of residents can’t be explained by lack of demand. The 4,000-square-foot townhouses, originally priced from $1.2 million to $1.8 million, are under contract to buyers who put down as much as $500,000 starting as far back as 2018. They were told by developer Doug Cox their homes would be ready in 45 to 90 days, or at the latest six months.
They’ve been waiting ever since. Their plans have been perpetually postponed by Cox, owner of Drive Development, who has not closed a house sale in four years despite a booming market. His completion dates teased buyers as the houses beckoned. But their dreams of a dream home have gone bust.
They have been locked out and led into a dead end darkened by threats, lawsuits, non-disclosure agreements and unsavory lenders, buyers say.
The delays have turned buyers and their families into nomads — moving from one expensive rental to another, cramming in with relatives while living out of suitcases — draining their finances and testing their marriages. When they go past their houses they are tantalized by memories not made — cooking in the kitchen, playing in the pool, celebrating birthdays, hosting block parties.
“We’ve spent three Christmases in limbo,” said Alan Lombardi, who signed a contract three years ago with the assurance that he, his husband and their newborn twin daughters would move in by summer 2020. The twins are now age 3. “The developer has kept us hanging on his hook, ruining people’s lives by deceiving us with false promises, just like Bernie Madoff.”
Lombardi has asked the FBI to investigate Cox for running a Ponzi scheme.
The buyers can’t move in because Cox has failed to complete inspections and get certificates of occupancy from city of Miami building department officials, whose lack of oversight enabled Cox to ignore expired permits and a Stop Work order and avoid applying finishing touches on houses for years. The city, which has ceased responding to buyers’ calls and emails, says it can’t intervene in a private dispute.
The buyers got caught in the fallout from Miami’s COVID-driven housing gold rush. Some are transplants from New York, Chicago and California who were eager to sign purchase agreements for new homes that looked — outside and inside — like they were ready to sleep in, missing only a mirror, some paint, a fence. They want their plight to serve as a warning: Don’t make one-sided deals with developers.
Cox is deliberately stalling to frustrate them into canceling their contracts so he can flip each house for an additional $1 million or more, buyers allege. They feel trapped: As time passed, the market skyrocketed, and in 2023 they will never find comparable homes in the neighborhood for the price they planned to pay and the mortgage rate they had secured.
On Wednesday, Drive Realty listed 2986 Coconut Ave. for $2.495 million. Original sales price in July 2020 was $1.385 million, a difference of $1.11 million. One catch: It doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy so anyone who buys it can’t move in.
“Seems like a shell game,” said Andy Parrish, a longtime Miami developer who lives in Coconut Grove. “He’s put these people through hell by stonewalling them with excuses.”
One weary buyer confided in Parrish, cried on his shoulder.
“She said, ‘I can’t believe people lie to other people like this,’ ” Parrish said. “I told her, ‘Welcome to Miami! A sunny place for shady people.’ ”
Cox, 52, initially agreed to an interview with the Miami Herald, then changed his mind and asked for emailed questions. He didn’t respond to questions sent twice or attempts to talk to him over the past two weeks.
Nicole Pearl, 37, who is Cox’s business partner and mother of their three children, declined to talk to the Herald. Her law firm, Pearl & Associates, is the registered agent of companies connected to the properties, Florida corporate records show. She is a licensed real estate agent who lists homes for Drive Realty.
The Herald spoke to 16 buyers — many did not want their names published, fearing retaliation by Cox — and examined lawsuits, mortgages, purchase agreements, property records and Miami building department reports, which substantiated buyers’ chorus of complaints.
No sales closed since 2019
Cox calls himself the “King of Coconut Grove.” His clients call him less flattering nicknames. What his gambit is no one can say for certain because he has not sold a home since August 2019 when he and Pearl closed on a Bridgeport Avenue townhouse for $1.15 million. Closing on the new homes should be a mutual goal but there are no signs of progress. He offers clients refunds of their deposits and says he’s got a line of backup buyers.
“It’s a strange way to run a real estate development company,” Lombardi said. “It’s really an anti-development company. Why doesn’t he want to deliver? How can he afford to operate?”
Cox has told buyers he wants to get them into their special houses, but he’s been delayed by factors beyond his control: the pandemic, supply-chain problems, manpower shortages, rising construction costs, subcontractor snafus and now bureaucratic red tape in the building department tangling his efforts to finish inspections.
Double contracts on homes
Is Cox playing musical chairs? At least three of the townhouses have double contracts on them. The legal descriptions correspond to 2955, 2960 and 2990 Coconut Ave.
Some buyers discovered through Miami-Dade Clerk of Court records that near the end of 2022 Cox signed a “memorandum of contract” on their houses with Chris Paciello, the former South Beach nightclub impresario, and his business partner, Mio Danilovic. Before he became famous for hosting parties at Liquid and dating Madonna, Sofia Vergara and Jennifer Lopez, Paciello was a Mafia henchman and thief in New York City.
Once Paciello’s past caught up with him in 2000, he became an FBI informant, pleaded guilty to racketeering and served six years in prison for robbing $300,000 from a New York bank and driving the getaway car in a home invasion during which a Staten Island housewife was shot in the face and killed.
Paciello, the owner of four Anatomy Fitness deluxe gyms in South Florida, has ventured into real estate investment since the pandemic and flipped houses for $9 million and $14 million in Miami Beach. It’s unclear how much of a deposit Paciello and Danilovic put down in their backup contract deal with Cox. Backup contracts are not illegal.
When contacted by the Herald, Paciello, 51, declined to comment.
In another complication that has alarmed buyers, Cox took out a $350,000 loan in December from DC Fund based in Sunny Isles Beach, whose associates include men who were sued for racketeering in an alleged loansharking scheme that disguised “criminally usurious loans” as cash advances that had to be repaid with 430 percent interest, according to a lawsuit filed in Brooklyn. Cox put up eight properties as collateral. If he defaults on the loan, he could lose them.
Buyers have observed Cox showing their houses to prospective buyers on multiple occasions. He says he is merely displaying his handiwork, and not offering those particular houses for sale. But contract holders have heard from acquaintances whose names are on a list of backup buyers Cox has compiled. One is upset he’s only No. 3 on the list.
If Cox is flipping the townhouses, for how much? Miami real estate agent Randi Connell, who identifies herself as a Drive Development sales associate, recently texted a prospective buyer about two off-market Coconut Avenue houses available for $2.7 million and $3 million, which is $1.5 million and $1.2 million more than the original sales prices.
Pearl listed 2986 Coconut Ave. for sale for $2.495 million on Wednesday morning. The house first went under contract for $1.385 million on July 8, 2020, to Jonathan Schonfeld and Aviva Auslander, with a completion date of Sept. 1, 2020, or at the latest, March 1, 2021. They waited two years. Disgusted, they gave up.
If Cox and Pearl land a buyer for 2986, they could collect at least a $500,000 deposit and “utilize” it as they please, according to two Send Enterprises contracts the Herald reviewed. Contrary to realty ethics rules, Pearl did not disclose in the listing that the house doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy, and its building permit expired Feb. 15.
“If the delays are indeed outside their control, how can they list a property if they don’t know when or if they can close?” Lombardi asked.
South Florida real estate lawyer Dennis Eisinger said home buyers can get “boxed in” by contracts that typically favor the developer and waive buyers’ rights.
“It appears this developer is bullying the buyers to get the financial advantage,” he said. “We saw this situation before the recession in 2003-2006 when defiant and unscrupulous developers tried to get buyers to rescind contracts so they could resell at higher prices.”
Lawsuits, ‘worst decision of my life’
At least three buyers, including Schonfeld and Auslander, sued Send Enterprises, alleging fraud and breach of contract. The cases were assigned to mediation, as required in the contracts; buyers cannot seek a jury trial. They had to sign non-disclosure agreements. At least four others have taken Cox up on his offer to refund their deposits and walk away; they also signed NDAs.
Catherine and Andrew Prescott of Miami Beach signed a $1.82 million purchase agreement on May 25, 2021, and paid a $455,000 deposit for 2960 Coconut Ave. The contract stipulated a completion date of Aug. 1, 2021, and an “outside” closing date within six months.
The Prescotts sued Send Enterprises in January 2022 for its alleged failure to achieve specific performance of its obligations, fraudulent inducement, unfair trade practices, negligent misrepresentation and unjust enrichment.
In their lawsuit, which also named Cox, Schonfeld and Auslander asserted that Cox “repeatedly lied” about “fabricated dates.” The Prescotts said the developer made promises “without any intention of performing, or with the positive intention to not perform” to entice them to sign and pay a deposit. The cases went to mediation and everyone signed NDAs.
Three months after the Prescotts sued, a real estate agent who works with Cox offered the house for $2.4 million, about $600,000 more than the original sales price.
Other buyers are determined to stick it out. They can’t afford to hire a lawyer. They’re not ready to abandon the houses they’ve invested in, emotionally and financially. And they don’t want to let Cox win.
“If I could rewind time — this was the worst decision of my life,” said Kevin Ware, who owns an insurance brokerage firm. He moved his family from Chicago in March of 2021, walked through a Coconut Avenue townhouse that was weeks from completion and fell in love with it. They’ve lived in three rentals since. “We cannot let Doug keep scamming more people. We don’t want anyone else to get caught in this predicament. Buyer beware.”
Strung along by Cox, buyers acquired mortgages with 2 percent rates that have since tripled.
“It must be exhausting to be Doug Cox. He lives in 15-minute increments. Think of all the lies he has to keep track of,” Ware said. “We have paid a high price for dealing with him. From the sheer expense of living in short-term housing to the financial damage of losing our mortgage rate locks to the strain on our relationships and mental health, Doug has constantly and cruelly put his greed above our well-being.”
‘Cautionary tale for other home buyers’
For Lombardi and his family, it’s been a three-year ordeal, first sharing his mother’s small Hollywood condo with his partner and infant twins, now in a $5,000-per-month Midtown apartment.
“We thought it would be a three-month wait because the house was 80 percent done, so we sold our Brickell condo, put everything, including baby equipment, in a sealed storage pod, packed four suitcases and moved in with my mom — for two years,” said Lombardi, a real estate agent.
The twins never had the nursery Lombardi envisioned.
One buyer described himself and his wife as “40-year-old couch surfers.” They’ve lived in seven different places.
New York transplants Michael Coyne and his wife, Oksana, have 1-year-old twin daughters and a 3-year-old son, and expected to share 2978 Coconut Ave. with her parents, who fled Ukraine after Russia attacked. Among the six places they have lived since their closing date evaporated was a one-bedroom apartment.
Coyne said they moved to a rental in Rhode Island to wait it out because they couldn’t afford “insane” rents in Miami. Fueled by inflation that’s made housing unaffordable for many and the influx of remote workers and newcomers moving to a no-income tax state, Miami has become the most competitive rental market in the country with prices 76 percent higher than the national median, a Zillow study showed.
Coyne, an investment banker, wanted to open an office with two of his business associates in Miami but he’s told them not to come. Oksana, a registered nurse, was scheduled to do her clinical work to become a nurse practitioner; she’s postponed her career plans. The chaos has been difficult for the children and Oksana’s Ukrainian parents, who speak limited English.
“Doug and Nicole either lie to you or ignore you,” Coyne said. “You work really hard for your family to buy the most important asset of your life and you get caught in a calculated, malicious, exploitative scheme by a flimflam developer.
“I’m not letting him get away with it. Let this be a cautionary tale for other homebuyers.”
One family has suffered the longest. They chose a four-bedroom model four and a half years ago so their 12-year-old daughter would have her own room and so her grandmother, recovering from cancer, could live with them. Now, the daughter is a high school senior heading to college in the fall. The grandmother never got to move in with her family.
City of Miami should be ‘embarrassed’
Cox brags about his chummy connections to the city’s building department and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.
Cox’s customers recount the exact same comments he’s made to all of them — that he can remove any obstacle by “having a cafecito” with officials. Drive Development contributed $50,000 to Suarez’s re-election campaign in 2020 and $100,000 to Suarez’s 2018 initiative to create a strong mayor position (voters rejected it), campaign finance records show.
Buyers who have sought relief from the city have gotten nowhere: Emails, phone calls and meetings have prompted no corrective action.
Buyers acknowledge they signed contracts that gave lots of leeway to the developer but decided to sign because they were shown nearly completed houses by a persuasive seller who had previously built fine houses. What could go wrong?
The Herald asked to speak to three City of Miami building department officials about inspection delays and an audit of Drive Development plans. The city’s reply: “The Building Department takes this matter seriously and is tasked with enforcement of the building code and other technical standards, as well as City ordinances. The Building Department has no authority over the pace of construction, nor any contractual matters between the buyers and the developer.”
The city does have authority over permitting and inspections, but wouldn’t explain why it has taken years for Cox to receive city approvals and certificates of occupancy. Nor would officials answer questions about penalties for permit violations or prolonging the inspection process.
“The city should be embarrassed,” Lombardi said.
When the Coynes asked Pearl for an update three weeks ago, she told them inspectors can’t work during an audit. The city said that’s not true; inspectors are allowed to carry on.
Developers like Cox can hire “private providers” to conduct inspections and submit the results to the city. Cox hired MEP Consulting Engineers of Coral Gables. He’s told buyers he blames MEP for bungling reports. MEP blames Cox for not giving inspectors the information they need to finish the job.
MEP President Katrina Meneses said that the city’s audit is done and in the hands of Cox.
“What we’re waiting on is paperwork from the owner, our client,” she said. “We love to finish projects so we can move on to the next one. Anything that takes over a year, it’s difficult to continue and slows us down. Yes, if I was a customer, I’d feel upset.”
The city is notorious for its lack of transparency and accountability, said Parrish, the Miami developer who lives in the Grove.
“We’re in a pro-development city, county and state where everything is driven by developers and their money. Florida is a creation of developers,” he said. “Developers control elections, elections control politicians and politicians control building and zoning. The city of Miami is one of the worst examples of how the gravy train works. It’s an absolute mess.”
Buyers have asked for help from the city, ex-Miami commissioner Ken Russell, Mayor Suarez, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the FBI. The response: If Cox isn’t doing anything illegal, we can’t get involved.
Ware’s experiences illustrate the relationship between Cox and the city.
Cox was allowed to work through a Stop Work order for more than a year. The city issued the order because Cox failed to submit plans for the five three-story townhouses he was building on Coconut Avenue; he only submitted plans for the two-story units. His reason: Plans were proprietary and he didn’t want his design stolen.
Ware discovered there was a Stop Work order and expired permit on his house when he checked the city website iBuild in summer 2021.
According to Ware, Cox told him not to worry, the order wasn’t being enforced and he’d have a cafecito with officials to smooth things over. Five months later, after repeated requests for an update, Cox told Ware he had submitted a substantial number of reports to the city after giving MEP engineers a $50,000 bonus each to expedite inspections, and promised Ware “we’re almost there.”
A month later, Ware met with city inspector Perla Mutter. She told him Cox had submitted nothing, and that because of the expired permit, nothing could be submitted until Cox and his contractor Eric Myers met with the building department.
A month after that, on April 26, 2022, Ware went to the meeting at city offices expecting to talk to Cox, Myers and Miami building department assistant director Luis Torres. But Cox met with Torres privately first. And there was no sign of Myers.
“Doug comes out of the office and admits he met with Torres early so that, ‘Everything would be taken care of,’ ” Ware said. ”The following week Doug paid a $100 fine and reopened his permit.
“The city can try to cleanse its hands but it is enabling this developer to abuse the system,’’ Ware said.
The permits for 2984 and 2986 Coconut Ave. expired last month. Cox must sign onto iBuild and pay $100 to re-activate the permits for six months. It’s part of a years-long pattern: His permits expire, he reactivates them months later, then doesn’t enter documentation in time for the city to complete reviews before they expire again, records show.
Permits for the other townhouses on Coconut Avenue are scheduled to expire March 12, April 30 and July 4. Buyers check iBuild and see a vicious cycle: Submit, Pending, Review, Deny, repeat.
To fix the slow and complicated permitting process that has stranded buyers, they advocate new laws with strict 120-day deadlines for the review and approval of applications and harsh penalties for breaking them.
There’s a cost to the city as well. Cox has been paying property taxes of $10,000 per lot, or $60,000 per year on the Coconut Avenue townhouses. Homeowners would pay about $20,000 per unit, or a total of $240,000 per year.
‘House of Rumors’
Then there’s the seven-year saga of 4010 Park Ave.
The two-story South Grove house still has plywood for a front door and a Porta Potty in the front yard.
On realtor.com, it’s listed as a 5-bedroom, 6-bathroom home “active with contract” for $2.95 million.
In 2019, Steven Salm bought the home for $2.55 million. He sued Send Enterprises in November 2020; the lawsuit went to mediation and NDAs were signed. The house was re-listed in February 2021 for $2.95 million.
Marcos Junges has lived next door for 27 years. He said the building of 4010 Park began back in 2016.
“Goes in fits and starts, with long hiatus periods,” he said.
He and his neighbors — who paused to chat during one of their evening walks — call it the “House of Rumors.” They’ve heard it’s been under contract for five years with a succession of buyers. Junges said Cox bought the modest house that used to be there from his elderly neighbor’s family when she died.
At 2050 Secoffee St., majestic oak trees shade a vacant lot. Secoffee is a quintessential Grove street in the rapidly transforming North Grove, where developers capitalize on the neighborhood’s expansive lots by tearing down old houses and the jungle that surrounds them and building new ones with much larger footprints. Price-per-square-foot in the Grove’s 33133 ZIP code rose to a record $874 last year.
Drive Development’s website shows a gorgeous rendering of a 5,302-square-foot house with atrium, listed for $4.85 million in July 2021, then removed in January 2022. A description currently on movoto.com includes three different wishful details: Under construction! Expected completion Q3 2022 and Year built 2021.
No ground has been broken.
Cox tells buyers he’s finishing his own dream townhouse at 3167 Shipping Ave. in central Coconut Grove. The adjacent one is under contract with a buyer from New York City who is growing more impatient. Both look ready for move in. Around the corner on Gifford Lane, a buyer from southern California awaits a townhouse that was supposed to be done in November. Other than grass growing, nothing’s happening on the lot.
Cox’s companies have taken out at least $59 million in loans, for which he put up 20 properties as collateral, according to public records.
But it’s his most recent loan that has buyers concerned about the fate of their houses. Cox borrowed $350,000 from DC Fund on Dec. 30, 2022, soon after three buyers decided to cancel and get their deposits back. Around the same time, Pearl signed the double contracts with Paciello and Danilovic. And now Cox and Pearl have listed a house for which they could pocket $500,000 or more in deposit money.
Cox put up eight properties as collateral on the DC Fund loan. If he defaults, lenders get first dibs.
DC Fund’s registered agent is Ariel Peretz, principal of Diverse Capital, a lender that advertises “we say yes when others say no” and urges customers to get in touch “if you’re in search of desperately-needed money.”
Peretz and DC Fund members run firms in the merchant cash advance business, mostly based in Brooklyn, which attempt to skirt state usury laws by saying they are not lending quick money at exorbitant rates but are buying the future earnings of their borrowers.
Peretz and DC Fund associates Yoel Getter and Jonathan Allayev and their companies were sued in 2021 by a Texas businessman who accused them of collaborating in a “criminal enterprise that profits by making and collecting on illegal loans.”
The businessman took out a $150,000 loan for which he agreed to repay $224,850 at 215 percent interest via $3,748 daily debits from his bank account. Two weeks later, the businessman borrowed $350,000 — in part to repay the first one — at 430 percent interest, for which he owed $524,650 via $17,488 daily debits.
The businessman dropped the case.
Peretz didn’t return messages left by the Herald.
“We are very worried,” Coyne said. “If Doug gets in trouble with these high-risk loans and debts, we may be left with nothing.”
Cox boasts to buyers that he and Pearl are independently wealthy with $70 million in savings, but if his cash flow has dried up, they fear he can’t pay off mortgages, can’t obtain the clean title necessary to close and could declare bankruptcy.
“He may have thought, ‘I sold these too cheap and I can make more money if I resell,’ but that makes less sense every day because the market is cooling,” Parrish said. “Maybe he got in too deep and has problems paying lenders. He can’t close so he’s kicking the can down the road.”
The two sides of Doug Cox
Cox can be a charming salesman.
Or a belligerent bully.
Michael Coyne has seen both sides. But as a U.S. Army combat veteran, he is not intimidated.
“The last time I saw him he ran up to my car, leans in and says he’s hired a former CIA operative to tail me because my wife made disparaging comments on social media,” Coyne said. “Another time he told me, ‘Bring it!’ I deal with plenty of nasty lawyers on Wall Street and none of them have ever challenged me to a street fight.”
Lombardi has felt Cox’s wrath. Cox terminated Lombardi’s 3-year-old contract last month, accusing him of trespassing at his house at 2984 Coconut Ave. and making derogatory comments. Cox prohibits buyers from going on their properties and has installed surveillance cameras. But he allowed Lombardi to go inside last May with his family.
Eight months later, when Cox heard Lombardi called the FBI, Lombardi said, Cox canceled his contract. They are in mediation. Lombardi wants his deposit back, and believes Cox wants him out so he can list 2984 at a higher price and collect another $500,000 deposit.
Buyers are also wary of Cox because they’ve read a graphic police report from Sept. 6, 2020, when Cox and Pearl got into an argument.
Pearl, who describes Cox in the report as her “live-in boyfriend,” told police Cox began texting her with insulting names from the master bedroom where he was with their daughter as she put their 3-year-old son to bed in his room. Cox stormed in and hit her, choked her, pulled her hair and spit on her as their son watched, “terrified and screaming.” She wrote this description for police:
“He has a pattern of domestic violence and extreme childhood abuse and trauma which has left him with deep unresolved issues and anger problems. This has culminated into a cycle of violence with me since 2014. … He has repeatedly threatened that if I report it, it will destroy his life and in turn he will destroy mine and that of my family.”
Pearl also checked boxes asserting he has “threatened to conceal, kidnap or harm” their children and “intentionally injured or killed a family pet.”
Cox was charged with battery and domestic violence by strangulation and spent the night in jail, Miami-Dade Corrections records show. He was given a restraining order. Pearl dropped the charges.
Cox has perfected the art of evasion.
“I call it the Doug Cox two-step,” Coyne said.
When buyers are able to chase him down on the phone — he avoids putting anything in writing — he swears he’s pushing against the forces obstructing him. He wants them living in their dream homes as ardently as they do.
A vacant lot on Woodridge, a sweet little street in the South Grove next to Merrie Christmas Park and its towering banyan trees, has been overtaken by vegetation. As people in Miami clamor for more housing, this spot where a cottage once stood has grown wild. Vines climb the trees instead of children. The scraping racket of a bulldozer echoes down the block.
On this patch, owned by the King of Coconut Grove, all is still. The ripe land, taking revenge, has reclaimed itself.
Miami Herald Director of Research Monika Leal contributed to this report.