The prosecutor from a district attorney's office in Boston recently told one of the producers or our radio show that from what he's seen, criminals do not take the fall for each other. He said, nobody willingly goes to prison for a crime to help a buddy. There's too much at stake, he said. The circumstances would have to be extraordinary.
So I ran this by this guy named Rich Farrell who's spent a lot of time around the Boston mob while co-writing a book with this mobster named Patrick Nee. And who also wrote a book about his own years committing petty crimes and doing heroin. And Rich Farrell did not agree. He said guys take the fall for each other all the time. He told me about two mobsters, and one of them is a buddy of his. He's convinced both did time for murders they didn't commit.
It's believable to him because he's taken the fall. This was back when he was on the streets in the 1980s in Lowell, Massachusetts. He says, one time there was this kid.
There was a kid that was a real scumbag. Listen to me, we were scumbags too. But there's different level of scumbags on the streets. We were drug addicts. We weren't going to rob from old ladies, from kids, from people that weren't engaged in the type of stuff we were. And this kid was known for this coming out of the projects down there. They would run over and they would grab the old lady's pocketbook right out of their arms. And just rip it off them and run.
So this kid does this to Rich's aunt. And later, the kid is found beat up, badly beat up. And the police accuse Rich of doing it.
So the cops must have thought I had cause to do this, but it was actually one of my best friends that I grew up with. He's dead now, Tommy Sparks. I was taken in for it and it came down to my father's friend who was my attorney. He said, to me, Richie, they made a deal. Basically, I had to agree to it. I said, but Gene, I didn't do it. I frigging wasn't even there. The things weren't even there. And he said, hey, Richie-- I'll never forget this-- he said, Richie, did you ever do anything and get away with it? And I smiled and I said, of course. So it was one of those things.
The one thing he never would have done he says, is tell them that his friend Tommy did it. That would have been unthinkable.
We had that code, that Irish code, that just said, you're not a rat. You don't tell on people. You just take it. It's principle. And I learned it early on.
When I was in the seventh grade, 13. I look back, I was 13 years old. We're at a YMCA dance in downtown Lowell. And around 11 o'clock we're cutting back across the city to the Acre, the Irish section, St. Patrick's School was there where we attended school, all the Irish kids. And door's open and Billy Burns had to go to the bathroom. So he went up to the second floor and we went up and Billy had taken one of the urinal pucks and he had put it into the toilet and flushed it.
Those little cakes from the urinal?
Yeah, those little cakes. And there was water coming out. And we said, let's get out of here. Well, we went home thinking, OK, we're going to make it. No problem. Didn't think anything. The cops came to my door.
Wow. That's a real response for urinal cakes down a pipe.
Yeah, they came to my door and they said that I was the one who threw the puck down. And so I looked up my father standing there and I knew I was in a lot of trouble. My father had a belt that his father had given him from Ireland, and he used to give us what he called, zebra stripes, because it left these red marks. So he called them zebra stripes. I knew I was in trouble. But I also knew by my father's eye something I was taught early on, there's like this Irish code, unwritten, that you just do not tell on anybody. If you get caught at something, if you're involved in something, you just suck it up. That's part of being a man.
So I looked at him and of course I said, well, I didn't do it. But I wasn't going to say who did it and I didn't say Billy Burns was lying. I got a beating that night anyway. And then the next day in school, the nuns took us all in and was questioning us. And I could-- it would have been easy for me to say, I didn't do it. It was Billy. But instead, I sucked it up because I knew if I thought that those zebra stripes were bad, the beaten I would have received from my dad would have been triple-- giving people up. So I was expelled from school, and that was my first lesson in being the fall guy, taking the rap for something I didn't do.
Well, today on our program, the Fall Guy, stories of people who take the fall out of principle, and people who take the fall because they just can't figure out any way to get out of it. In other words, willing and unwilling fall guys.
Our program today in four acts. Act one, Beat It. Act two, Be Careful Who You Love. Act three, Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough. Act four, Man in the Mirror. In this four acts, it's Mike Birbiglia, Philip Gourevitch, the Planet Money guys and Shalom Auslander. Stay with us.
Act One: Beat It
"Act one, Beat It."
Sometimes things start happening to you, and then they keep happening to you, and it's only once days and weeks have passed that you realize exactly what it is that's going on. That's what happened to Mike Birbiglia. He recorded this story in front of an audience in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When I was a freshman in high school I went to an all boys' Catholic school called St. John's in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. And the first few weeks of school are pretty overwhelming because there are kids from all different towns: Shrewsbury, Worcester, Sutton, Oxford, Milford, Leominster, Milford.
One of the things about all boys' schools is that homophobia is almost a religion as opposed to usually where it's just an integral part of a religion. We were constantly calling each other gay. A common conversation would be like, you're gay. No, you are. No, you are. And that would go on for like an hour.
And every day when we walked down the hill to soccer practice there was a back and forth between the soccer and football teams that the other team was in fact, gay. And what developed was this kind of all out you're gay war.
I found out later that one of my you're gay grenades hit a guy named Joey [? Grigione ?]. Now I didn't know Joey [? Grigione ?], but he was from Worcester. He was tough. He liked to fight. This is going to sound like I'm making this up, but he was like a cross between a white Allen Iverson and a velociraptor.
So one day I'm walking down the hill to soccer practice and I'm hit by what feels like a rock on the back of my head. I later found out that it was a fist. Forgot to mention this detail: Joey had rock-like fists. The impact of this immediately knocks me to the ground and I'm on the ground. I'm being hit by these rock fists. And finally, I'm like, I need to run away.
I don't even consider fighting back. I'm just like, I need to leave here. This is going terribly. This is the worst walk ever. So he hits me about four or five times. Mind you, he's in full football gear and I am in nylon shorts and shin guards. So if he had wanted to beat the crap out of my shins, no dice. But really, anywhere else on my body is fair game. Particularly my head, which he seemed focused on.
I run down the hill and he shouts, now who's gay? And he was right. In that context between me and him, I was definitely the one who was gay.
But it's at this point that I realize that Joey [? Grigione ?] actually cared that someone had called him gay. That's what confused me. It never occurred to me that it had any meaning to call anything, anyone gay. I mean, we called everything gay. The football team, some of our teachers, the water fountain, geometry, tuna fish sandwiches. I mean, anything.
Anyway I go to practice and I tried to go on business as usual. And that day in the middle of sprints, I start crying. You know, I can't control it. And the coach asked me, what happened and I tell him. And so at this point there's an investigation. And I assume Joey [? Grigione ?] will be punished in some way. I don't know, but maybe suspended. Maybe even expelled from school. But he isn't. He's suspended for one football game.
There are things that kids do to each other in high school that if you did them as adults, you would go to jail for sure. If I walked up here and I said to this guy, like, you're gay, and he takes my head and smashes it on the stage, he would go to jail. Not at St. John's. One football game. Which I thought was nothing, but apparently Joey was furious about this.
So he sends some other bullies after me because they're watching him at this point. And one day I'm walking back from soccer practice and this guy named Tom [? Bocatti ?] walks up to me and he gets in my face. But there's nothing really to argue about. Because the original fight was based on nothing. It was like, you're never going to call Joey [? Grigione ?] gay again or I'll kill you. And I was like, absolutely. You have my word, fine sir.
One day I'm at my locker and this guy Bill Murphy goes, hey, Mike. And I look over and he punches me in the face. Not really hard, but hard enough that it made the punch in the face noise, which is pride swallowing. And he goes, that's for Joey [? Grigione ?]. And I'm like, what! Wait a minute, this guy is smaller than me. And what's sad is I don't even fight back. I'm like, I guess this is what my life is like now.
And the next day I'm in the computer lab and I'm writing an article for the school paper about the aviation club and this guy walks in and he goes, Dave Kilroy's looking for you and he's going to kill you. And I'm like, I don't even know who Dave Kilroy is. That's how bad my situation was. I'm the kind of person who, for fun, writes articles called, "Aviation Club Soars Into Orbit." And a bully I have never heard of is sending out envoys.
One more thing that made this entirely strange, and this might just be funny for me, but there was a dress code at the school. And so in the middle of all this violence everyone is wearing a coat and tie. So these bullies, they look like these low rent child mobsters sent in to discipline people on bad loans.
Well, I make it through the winter and I decide that I'm going to stick it out. Like all great underdogs, I'd been knocked down, but I was going to make a place for myself. So I run for class president. And I lose by a lot. And then, I try out for the tennis team. And I don't make it-- by a lot.
St. John's just didn't want to participate in my life. And at the end of the year I came up with a different idea, which was to quit. And I ran this by all the adults in my life: my teachers, my parents, my guidance counselor. And what's surprising is that no one tried to talk me out of it. They didn't say those things that you hear in the after school specials. Like, hey, buddy, don't give up. And stick it out champ. Or, don't let them get the best of you, ace.
The best of me was off the table, and everyone knew it. Somehow I'd become the fall guy for the entire ninth grade class. I symbolized a certain kind of kid, the kind of kid who everyone hates. So I left.
And at my new school, those first few weeks where everyone's getting to know each other, where you're from, what do you like to do, I decided to omit the fact that at my previous school for a year I had been picked on so badly that I left the school.
And here's the truth about life that they never tell you in those after school specials. Running away works.
Because you know what? The kids at my new school, they never found out.
Mike Birbiglia, who starts a national tour in August, going through the Fall from Cape Cod to Los Angeles. Search the Internet for his name for details.
[MUSIC- "RUNNIN' AWAY" BY SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE]
Act Two: Be Careful Who You Love
"Act two, Be Careful Who You Love."
We now turn to a political fall guy, somebody who got blamed all over the world for certain US policies. Somebody that you definitely heard of, but who hasn't made much of a case for herself. Journalist Philip Gourevitch tells her story.
There's no law of nature, or even of storytelling that says a fall guy has to be admirable. Just because the wrong person is blamed for something doesn't mean that person's otherwise blameless. I mean, as a rule, a fall guy is not going to be someone who's made all the right choices.
Private First Class Lynndie England was 20 years old when she was sent to Iraq in 2003 in the first summer of the war. She was a West Virginia girl, a reservist with the 372nd Military Police Company.
At first, the unit was sent to the city of Al Hilla where they had a pretty good time. Al Hilla was calm. They could walk the streets, meet Iraqis, do some tourism. The word was that they'd be going home after a couple months. But then they get sent instead to Abu Ghraib Prison outside Baghdad.
Nobody in the 372nd had any training as military prison guards, but that's the work that most of Lynndie England's best buddies were given. England herself was luckier, she was in administration. Officially she wasn't even allowed on the cell blocks. Her job was in-processing.
American combat troops were rounding up Iraqis by the hundreds every day and dumping them in Abu Ghraib. England took their fingerprints. She did their retina scans and looked after their paperwork. In-processing had been her job in the unit back in the states too.
The year before when the company was on a drill weekend, getting ready to be activated and sent to Iraq, a new guy joined up, Corporal Charles Graner. An ex marine, he'd served in the first Gulf War.
England took his papers and in-processed him. Beyond that, she says, she hardly noticed Graner at first. But then she realized he noticed her.
He would follow me around he said. Like I smoked and he didn't. He started smoking, so he could get out there in the little smokers group. So he could talk to me. England wasn't used that kind of attention. And looking back, she said, he played me.
He courted her with Bluegrass music, her favorite. He bought her clothes and drinks and meals. He taught her how to drive a stick shift. She'd never seen the ocean before, so Graner took her to Virginia Beach. The thing was, Lynndie England was married. That held her back for a while, but she felt stress and disconnection at home. And everything in her marriage was made worse by the fact that she was about to be deployed to Iraq. She talked to Graner about it and he listened. She'd say, I don't need this. And he'd say, well, no, you don't. She'd say of her husband, we're just friends. And Graner would say it back to her. When she said, we're not really compatible as husband and wife, Graner would return it as, you're not really compatible as husband and wife. And England found this steady echo persuasive.
Graner, she said, he's really charming. And I was what? 20 years old when I met him. He was 34.
When they got together, she didn't mind that he took pictures of her all the time. Even, when he insisted, naked pictures. England filed for separation from her husband and told him she wanted a divorce. It was a heady spring for England with the invasion on TV, waiting to go to war, and love.
England and Graner had been a couple for six months when they arrived at Abu Ghraib. Graner documented their whole romance on his digital camera. After the first Gulf War, he told her, nobody had believed his war stories. And this time he was going to have proof. He was never without his camera and that's what he told everyone. He was collecting proof.
At Abu Ghraib, Graner was the guard in charge of the night shift on the cell blocks reserved for so-called high value prisoners who were being interrogated by military intelligence and the CIA.
While he was there, he wound up taking many photographs of American soldiers abusing their Iraqi wards. Graner posed in a lot of those photographs himself, and he posed England in a lot of them. There were hundreds of photographs from Abu Ghraib. But the pictures that became instantly iconic were the ones that showed naked prisoners in the same frame with American servicewomen. Most famously, or infamously, they were the shots of Lynndie England holding what looked like a leash at the end of which crawled a naked Iraqi man.
And the shots from another night, of England pointing and grinning at a naked and hooded prisoner who'd been made to masturbate in front of her. These scenes had obviously been staged for the camera. England, staring flatly in the lens, or giving a thumbs up, is clearly posing for the photographer.
The Abu Ghraib photographs eventually exposed the Bush administration's torture policy to the world. But the repellent, kinky weirdness of the images, of Lynndie England and her naked captives, created an immediate and powerful distraction.
Lynndie England was portrayed in the press as a sadist, a masochist, an Appalachian hillbilly slut, mentally retarded, you name it. Everybody had an opinion about her. But there was one thing missing from the discussion: her voice.
The army placed all the soldiers who took and appeared in the Abu Ghraib photographs in custody, then sent to courts marshal. These were the only people ever to be convicted and imprisoned for the president's torture program, and none of them was of high rank than staff sergeant. They never had the opportunity to speak for themselves in public until they began to be released a year, or two, or three later. That's when the filmmaker, Errol Morris, started interviewing them for a documentary movie. And I joined him to write a book from the same material.
Lynndie England spoke for nearly nine hours over two days. She didn't feel guilty. In fact, she didn't think she'd done anything wrong. She kept saying, everything we did was just what we were told to do. It was true. The MPs weren't only instructed and encouraged to harm the prisoners in the ways they recorded in pictures, they were commended for it.
There were senior commanders coming through the cell blocks pretty much every night to watch the MPs do their dirty work. As Graner took photos of what was going on, he showed them to his superior officers at the prison. Their response was, good job. He even got that in writing from his captain after he knocked one prisoner's head into the wall. So hard that eight stitches were required to staunch the bleeding.
Again and again, the MPs were told, these prisoners are the worst of the worst. And as England kept saying, the stuff you see in the photographs is not the real torture that was happening at the prison. What you see is just humiliation, she said, and harassment.
That same Fall at Abu Ghraib, soldiers were shooting prisoners who protested the rotten food and overcrowding at Abu Ghraib. Shooting them with live rounds. In some cases, shooting them dead. A prisoner was killed during a CIA interrogation in the shower and Graner and his team were enlisted to help cover it up.
There was a night when England heard a prisoner screaming in that shower, a scream so horribly piercing that she was sure he was being killed. So she couldn't get too worked up about the photographs, and she expressed no remorse for her conduct at Abu Ghraib. She was just a bystander there, the night watchman's girlfriend, just lending him a hand with his chores. That's how she saw it. And it made it tough to feel sympathy for her.
England fit nobody's political narrative. Not the left's, not the right's. It wasn't even clear that she disapproved of the policy for which she had taken the fall.
Take, for instance, the picture which showed her with a naked prisoner on a leash. It wasn't actually a dog leash, it was a cargo tie down strap that Graner used to coax a belligerent prisoner out of an isolation cell. And Graner had handed it to her for all of 30 seconds so he could photograph her with it. Here's what England said when she looked at the photograph.
I don't see the infamous picture from the Iraqi War. I just see me. It's just the picture.
The first thing that comes up in my mind is just, that's me. And yeah, that happened at the prison when I was in Iraq and that was one of the pictures taken.
As far as she was concerned, it wasn't a snapshot of her relationship to the prisoner, it was a snapshot of her relationship with Graner.
It's showing that he has power over me. And he wanted to demonstrate that power.
At Abu Ghraib, Charles Graner had become Lynndie England's chain of command. Whatever he asked me to do, she said, I'd do it.
For her, this story isn't about torture, it's a love story. In the end, Graner moved on from England while they were still at Abu Ghraib. This was a month or two before she found out she was pregnant with his baby. He cut her loose and took up instead with another soldier from the unit, Megan Ambuhl. They're married now, Chuck and Megan Graner. Although he's still in custody serving a 10 year sentence.
When England looks at how it all turned out between them, she understands that she was duped by a government that made torture its policy and then punished those who let themselves be seen doing it. Just like a decoy she said. But mostly, she sees herself as duped by Graner.
The moment that changed me was meeting Graner. If I wasn't involved with Graner I wouldn't probably be here. I wouldn't have been in that situation. I probably would have been doing admin work. Therefore, I wouldn't have been in the pictures. I wouldn't have been involved in any of that. I probably would have know it was going on, but I wouldn't have been involved and I wouldn't have therefore, went to prison. Or been the poster girl for this war.
How do people see me as the villain? I mean, yeah, I was in pictures that showed me holding a leash around the guy's neck. But that's all I did. I was in a picture. I never actually did anything to them. I was convicted of being in a picture.
Lynndie England's living back with her mom and her stepdad now with no income and with her three year old boy Carter, whose only relationship to his father is that he looks more like Graner every day.
I just want to go on with life. Get a job, raise my son. It's going to be hard for me to get a job because now I have a felony on my record. Plus that people don't want the publicity. I don't think I have a lot of choices. The way I feel right now in my own country to walk down the street is, I'm still scared. Because there's just people that hate me. They feel like we shouldn't have been doing that or we were being inhumane, or whatever their opinion is. At least when I was in Iraq I knew who the enemy was. Here I don't.
I mean I go out. I go to Walmart, I go shopping. But it's like I'm always watching my back. I don't like to walk in public. I don't like to walk down the street. I don't like to walk into a room that's crowded because it feels like everyone's staring at me. And people do. They stare me when I'm shopping for food, or something. I got my son with me and I'm concentrating on him. But I know people are staring at me. They know it's me. All I did was what I was told to do. I didn't make the war. I can't end the war. It just doesn't make sense. The government is just putting the blame on me because they can, and they have. I'm over it. I'm fine. You know, I'm not fine with it, but whatever.
She doesn't like to remember Abu Ghraib, but it's hard work forgetting.
When a memory comes over her she says she thinks about something else, reads a book, watches a movie Sometimes she has nightmares.
I don't even talk to my psychiatrist about them.
No. Because if I don't think about it, then guess what? Thoughts cause emotions. If I don't think about it, I'm not going to relive it. I'm only going to feel what I feel then. I'm not going to feel anything. So that's what I do, I don't think about anything. I don't want to relive or feel. If I think about it, I mean, it's overwhelming. It's too much to think about. It's why I take medicine, so I don't have the nightmares. Anti-depression, anxiety pills. That and usually my son wears me out. I'm usually exhausted and go to sleep. On the rare occasion that I forget to take my medicine, I usually have nightmares.
When that guy was screaming in the shower, I'll hear that in the middle of the night. It'll wake me up and freak me out. I mean, the way he was screaming. It sounded like they were killing him. Just death scream I guess you could call it.
Like a death scream, I don't know. It was horrible. He was just screaming at the top of his lungs constantly. And you're right like in the next room. It's like it's vibrating your whole body it's so loud. I don't think I'll ever get that out of my head.
In spite of the nightmares, when she spoke of the lessons she took away from Abu Ghraib, England went right back to Graner.
Learn from your mistakes. I learned from mine. It's like, I don't need a man to survive. Forget him.
This is what makes Lynndie England such a frustrating fall guy, her inability to see Abu Ghraib as anything more than the place where she met her own private fate. Yet, the more she talked, the more I came to see her point.
She'd gone off to war, proud to be a soldier, and she returned a figure of disgrace on a scale that is really utterly incomprehensible. Her buddies from Abu Ghraib had also been scapegoated. But Lynndie England was the household name. Politicians denounced her, newscasters sneered at her, she got hate mail blaming her for the fact that Americans were being beheaded by Iraqi insurgents. And around the world, her picture holding the leash was splashed on the walls of mosques, stenciled on protest t-shirts, hoisted on signs that bobbed over angry mobs from Tehran to Jakarta. So she couldn't make sense of what all this had to do with her. Can you blame her? I mean, at one level, she's right.
Philip Gourevitch. His book about what happened in that prison and in those photos is called, The Ballad of Abu Ghraib. Errol Morris's film with the actual interviews with England and the other US personnel from the prison is just really this incredible piece of filmmaking. I cannot recommend it enough. View movies are as ambitious and eye-opening. It's called, Standard Operating Procedure.
Coming up, grandma takes the fall. Or that's what a little grandkid wants anyway. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three: Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough
It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, the Fall Guy. We have stories of people who are taking the rap for things they were not responsible for, willingly or unwillingly.
We have arrived at act three of our show. "Act three, Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough."
Our current economic crisis has moved into the beginning of a lawsuit phase. I don't know if that's good or bad. But we're in a situation where people are trying to get somebody else to take the blame, take the fall, and pay up for our financial misdeeds in the last few years. Our economics correspondents on our program, Alex Blumberg and NPR's Adam Davidson have been looking into this and they have counted so far 196 lawsuits that are simply banks suing other banks. And they have brought some of their findings here into the studio.
So, Ira, as you can see, I have a huge pile of documents in front of me. These are just a handful of the lawsuits that are going.
There's big, white binders full of boring looking papers.
Yes, and this one right here that I took out my stack, this is M&T Bank Corp versus Gemstone CDO VII and Deutsche Bank Securities, and a handful of other people. This focuses on one CDO, one of these toxic asset--
Collateralized debt obligations.
Exactly. But what they're saying is that Deutsche Bank lied. That's the allegation. They had made the original mortgage loans, and then they had created these toxic products made up of all these bundled mortgage loans. They knew that a lot of people weren't paying their mortgages. A lot of people weren't even paying the first month the mortgage was due. So M&T's allegation is Deutsche Bank knew that--
And lied to the credit agency.
And lied to the credit agencies, and lied to their clients.
And lied to M&T.
Now has Deutsche Bank responded?
They have. They asked a judge to dismiss this out of hand saying let's not even hear the case. And actually, this is one of the only cases out of the hundreds of securities law cases that the judge did not dismiss. It's really hard to get one of these through.
So M&T bank is trying to say that Deutsche Bank should be the fall guy for this $82 million? And I understand that there's another lawsuit that you guys have been looking into, which involves Citigroup.
Yeah, this is the big one.
And in the case of Citigroup, it isn't another bank suing Citigroup.
Right, it's the Citigroup shareholders suing the bank that they own shares in. And specifically, it's not all shareholders, it's a subset of shareholders. Specifically, people who bought these shares between 2004 and 2009 in that five year period. And what they're saying basically is, they wouldn't have bought them for the price they paid if Citigroup had been more honest about its financial situation. So they're saying basically, they got tricked into buying Citigroup shares at a higher price than they should have paid for them.
And what's the substance of their suit against their own company?
At the heart of this complaint is that Citigroup had all these toxic assets. And it's actually the opposite of the M&T lawsuit. In the M&T lawsuit, they're saying Deutsche Bank had a crappy, toxic asset that wasn't worth anything and sold it to M&T. They cheated M&T.
This lawsuit is saying Citigroup had these crappy, toxic assets and they kept them.
Because they couldn't sell them. And so what they did is they kept them on their own books and then kept on, basically doing this activity for almost a year, where they would appear to sell them, but they weren't actually selling them. They were just sort of creating an off balance sheet company that they would sell these assets to, but Citigroup still had the exposure to these assets.
They would create an off balance sheet company? In other words, they would create a company and then pretend to sell it to that separate company.
Well, they would sell it to that company, but they owned that company.
Right. What they didn't tell people is that they were still responsible for that company.
If that company went down, they had to come and take on all of its assets.
So that's the allegation anyway.
Yeah. This document, which sums up their complaint is 534 pages, and it's just one of many, many documents we have on this lawsuit. I got to say, as far as tables of contents go, I find this one really interesting.
It sort of tells the whole story in pretty inflammatory and not very legalistic language.
Right. So it starts off, CDOs. What CDOS are. Then it says, defaults inevitable. It goes into schemes. How to make $25 billion of subprime exposure and risks parentheses, "appear to disappear." CDO Ponzi schemes.
Wait, wait, wait. These are the stockholders accusing their own company of running a Ponzi scheme?
OK, so Citigroup CDO Ponzi schemes. Case one, case two, case three. And then it has the continuation and culmination of the Ponzi scheme, citigroup's falsely hedged CDOs. So it's basically alleging that they made these CDOs and then they pretended to hedge them. In other words, pretended to like, basically get insurance against them if they went wrong. But the suit alleges they didn't actually get insurance against these CDOs, so they weren't protected.
Citigroup's disclosures were materially false and misleading, omitted material information, precluded any independent assessment of Citigroup's exposure to potential risks.
Wow, these people hate Citigroup.
Exactly. I mean this is just page three I think. It goes on for another five pages of the table of content.
Of the table of contents.
Right, exactly. Citigroup's November 2007 disclosures and valuations were still false and misleading. Still is in italics.
Then this is one. Citigroup's pre-November 2007, super senior-- that's a type of bond. Super senior valuations were simplistic, solipsistic, and reckless reliance on credit ratings. Quote--
Whoa, whoa, whoa. What was solipsistic?
Their pre-November 2007 valuations of these bonds that they had.
And then there's the whole second part of the sentence, and this is all in italics. Read this in italics. Despite the fact that CDO prospectuses authored by Citigroup stated that such ratings were not reliable indicators of CDO value. So in other words, they relied on the very things that they were saying were not reliable.
Don't get these people mad.
So when you look at the M&T lawsuit, it's something familiar to us. That's something we can understand.
They're lying to somebody about--
They're lying to someone. They're cheating. The Citigroup lawsuit is actually much stranger. But it turns out, much more important. The shareholders' lawsuit to Citigroup is not that you defrauded someone else, it's that you defrauded yourself. That you brought yourself down. This by the way, is part of Citigroup's defense.
In their legal documents they say, wait a second. Why in the world would we defraud ourselves?
Willingly, knowingly, purposefully.
Now the argument is the managers, the people they're suing, get a bonus every year. So late 2006, early 2007, they're seeing the collapse coming. But if they put it off a while, they get a little more bonus. Maybe, just maybe, they'll get a lucky break and it won't be that bad, and nobody will ever know that they had all this junk on their books.
In fact, in a way, you could say that the lawsuit against Citigroup is, you failed to defraud enough people that you were the sucker. You should have found other suckers to sell this junk to.
Wait, I feel like you just lost me. Because you're saying that there was this crappy stuff on the books and somehow the manager should have found a way to sell it to somebody else, so they wouldn't get stuck with it?
They should get it off their books. Now, they could get it off their books in a legitimate way. But obviously, they weren't able to sell this stuff. Nobody wanted it. At least anywhere near the price they were willing to sell it for. So a reasonable presumption seems to be that the shareholders would have been perfectly happy. In fact, thrilled, if Citigroup had managed to get rid of this.
Right. And then maybe those other people would be suing you, but we wouldn't be suing you. It'd be some other bank's shareholders probably, but not our problem. And what I find really interesting is, if Citigroup had managed to sell some of the stuff off of its balance sheet and sell it to other people, make other people the suckers, it might not have been as bad for the system and for the rest of us as a whole.
Wow. You're saying that if Citigroup had been more of a bastard, the economy would be better?
I am saying that. I don't think that's even controversial, actually. So here's the way the argument goes. Citigroup was the largest bank, financial institution in the country. It is hugely important to the system as a whole. So if Citigroup goes down, it brings down the rest of the global financial system with it. I mean Lehman almost brought down the global financial system. Citigroup is far, far larger than Lehman brothers and far more systemically important. So that's A.
B, they were on the brink of bringing the entire global economy down with them. And the way they got themselves to that position was because of these CDOs that the lawsuit is talking about. So it took all these crappy mortgages, and it took all these like crappy, toxic assets, and it sort of assembled them into one place, which was the Citigroup balance sheet. Which also happened to be sort of the central node of the global financial system. Instead of spreading the risk around the globe, it concentrated it all in the place where it could do the most damage.
And of course, we don't know anything, right? I mean, obviously this is allegations in a lawsuit. We're just saying it's really interesting. And these lawsuits are one of the only avenues we have to try and understand what happened. Because the congressional hearings have frankly, not really yet revealed much of substance about what was going on inside the banks. The banks themselves haven't told us an awful lot.
Right. And one of the things that seems like out there is there's this sense that surely, something criminal must have been going on. That something this bad doesn't just happen by accident or by random sort of mistake. And so there must have been somebody at the heart of this who knew, I'm doing a bad thing. And these lawsuits are sort of like one of the things that's going to help us figure out if that was actually true.
Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg. Their reporting on the economy is a co-production of our show and NPR News. They'r thrice weekly podcast, Planet Money, is at npr.org/money.
Act Four: Man In The Mirror
"Act four, Man in the Mirror."
You know how in big families there's often one kid who's the default to get blamed and take the fall when something happens? Shalom Auslander came from a small family, so in his family who would take the fall was usually up for grabs. And he very much did not want it to be him.
I was not a brave child. I was scared of heights. I was scared of non-Jews. I was scared of Nazis. I was scared of Arabs. I was scared of ET, the extraterrestrial. I was scared of the black people who lived in the town to the left of us, and I was scared of the Hasidic Jews who lived in the town to the right of us. I was scared of my father. I was scared of God. I was scared of the dark. I was not a brave child.
I was eight years old and had a downstairs bedroom and I was afraid to come out at night. The bathroom lay on the far side of the den. And though the agony in my loins was often unbearable, I would rather have died of a burst bladder, then fall prey to the non-Jews, Nazis, Arabs, black people, extraterrestrials, and Hasidic Jews, who were lying in wait beneath the sofa bed next door. And so I spent my nights in the fetal position, in torment, waiting for my kidneys to fail. And wondering what would happen when they did.
One day I came home from school to find my mother in the den, opening the sofa bed, and putting on fresh sheets. Grandma Ida is going to be living with us for a while she said.
Grandma Ida had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's a few months earlier. And as the disease was progressing rapidly, she was no longer able to take care of herself. She needs our help said, my mother. Grandma Ida was my father's mother, 4 feet and 10 inches of compressed fury and discontent, wound as tightly as the silver hair bun on the top of her head.
She came to our house and scowled. She scowled at me, and she scowled at my brother. She scowled at the food my mother cooked. And she scowled at my father for scowling at the very same food she had just scowled at.
I had a recurring dream about her. It is Sukkot, the Jewish feast of Tabernacles. Grandma is sitting next to me. She looks at me and scowls. Why don't you finish your meat, she says.
I'm not hungry, I reply.
Your mother worked hard to make that.
How come you're not eating it then, I ask. And with that, Grandma scoops me up in her arms, carries me away from the table, and throws me down the stairs.
You can come back up, she says, when you learn some respect.
I had a dream about her, I said to my mother.
Oh, she said, pulling on the pillow cases.
She threw me down the stairs.
Because I didn't finish my dinner.
Stop being ridiculous, said my mother. Your grandmother, she added unconvincingly, loves you.
Noodles looked up and growled.
That dog, my mother said, is a ticking time bomb.
Noodles was my white, curly-haired poodle-something mix. I was the only one in the family that understood Noodles, and he was the only one who understood me. I loved Noodles not just because of who he was, but because of who he hated. Noodles hated my father. My father was a frightening man, with broad shoulders, thick fingers, and a short temper. But Noodles didn't care. Noodles growled when my father came home. He growled when my father walked across the room. He growled when my father got up to go to bed.
Lousy mutt, said my father, closing his bedroom door behind him.
Good boy, I whispered.
That dog, said my mother, is a ticking time bomb.
One week later, Grandma Ida moved in. My mother had explained to me that Alzheimer's is a degenerative disease, which affected parts of the brain. Grandma couldn't remember my name, or the name of my siblings, and she was wearing a diaper because she was losing control of her bowels. She looked even smaller than I remembered, and as I watched her struggle up the front steps of the house, my fear of her was replaced with sorrow and pity.
Hi, Grandma, I said, giving her a hug. Don't hi me, said Grandma. And stop pulling.
Whatever parts of my grandmother's brain the Alzheimer's was affecting, it clearly hadn't yet spread to her scowl lobe, or her central anger cortex. She scowled when she saw her room, scowled when she learned that I would be sleeping next door.
A strange man like that, she complained. And scowled when my mother served dinner.
How are you feeling, Grandma?, I asked passing her the potatoes.
Laugh now, she said, you'll die soon too. Then we'll see who's laughing.
That night I had a dream about her. It is Sukkot, the Jewish feast of Tabernacles. Grandma is sitting next to me. She looks at me and scowls. Then comes the scooping, then the carrying, then the throwing me down the stairs.
I woke up. It was late and my heart was racing. And as usual, my bladder was bursting. I tip-toed to my bedroom door and looked across the darkened room to the bathroom that lay beyond. I thought for a moment that I would be safe crossing the room with Grandma there. But it took her five minutes to get out of bed and the Nazis would be finished with me in just one.
Perhaps it was the opening of my door, perhaps it was a breeze coming from the window, but as I was turning to go back to bed I noticed a faint pee smell. She was, I thought to myself, an old woman. Accidents, I realized, happen. A little extra pee I figured, wouldn't hurt anyone.
And so as Grandma Ida lay sleeping just 10 feet away, I stood at the edge of my bedroom, pulled down my pajama bottoms and peed on the orange shag rug that covered the den floor. I was not a brave child.
I woke the following morning to a soft hissing sound coming from next door. Watch where you step said my mother. She was emptying a can of Glade air freshener into the air. There was a pail of water on the rug beside the spot where I had peed the night before, along with an old scrub brush and some rags.
What happened?, I asked.
Your grandmother had a little accident, she said. That's all.
What kind of an accident?
An accident, that's what Kind Get some breakfast, you'll be late for school.
She took off her rubber gloves and followed me upstairs. Grandma was in the kitchen scowling at her oatmeal.
Good morning, Grandma, I said.
Says you, said Grandma. Noodles growled.
That dog, said my mother, is a ticking time bomb.
I was deliberate. I was careful. I never peed on the same spot two nights in a row. I peed as far away from my bedroom door and as close to Grandma's bed as possible. Every so often, I simply stood at my door and swiveled my hips, sprinkler style, so that the location of the pee could never be accurately identified.
This whole house smells like a god damn toilet, said my mother.
She's an old woman, I said.
She bought some air fresheners with names like lavender meadow and orchard nectar Carpet Fresh, and spent Sunday morning cleaning, and scrubbing, and blotting, and dabbing. But the house still smelled like a toilet. It smelled like a toilet someone had stuffed with flowers.
She bought my grandmother new diapers. Now with elasticized legs, said the box. For greater comfort and security. And she covered the mattress with an absorbent deodorizing mattress pad.
I began to enjoy the peeing. It wasn't just that it was the perfect crime, it's that it was the perfect justified crime. My father was violent, my grandmother was bitter, my mother was manipulative, and I had a weak bladder. Peeing on our house felt good. It felt right. I'd wanted to pee on our house for some time, and it soon occurred to me that there was really no reason I couldn't pee in other rooms too. Grandma wasn't restricted to the den. I could pee anywhere she went. And so I did. During breakfast, during dinner, while they were downstairs watching TV. I peed in my sister's room, I peed in my parents' room, and I peed in the dining room.
To avoid suspicions, I even peed in my own bedroom a couple of times. The house may have smelled like a toilet, but for the first time, in a long time, I felt happy.
And then one day, less than a month after Grandma arrived, I came home from school to find my mother waiting for me in my bedroom.
We need to talk, she said.
About what?, I asked.
Noodles always met me at the door when I came home from school. And looking around, I noticed he was missing.
Where is he? I asked. Your father took him.
That dog, said my mother, was a ticking time bomb.
Took him where?
He's been peeing on the floor, said my mother.
He has not.
Who was it then?
It was Grandma, I said.
Grandma wears diapers, said my mother. It was Noodles. And he nipped your father again.
Where did he take him? I demanded, my eyes beginning to fill with tears.
He took him to the pound, she said. He'll find a new home and we'll find a new dog.
I don't want a new dog, I shouted. It was Grandma. I threw myself on the bed, buried my face in the pillow, and cried. Noodles, I wailed. Noodles.
My grandmother stopped at my door and I looked up at her, tears running down my cheeks.
What is that racket, she said. why is this [? meshugana making such a racket?
He misses his dogs, said my mother. Grandma waved her hand as she shuffled away. Filthy animals, she said. I watched her go and a powerful rage grew inside me.
OK, I thought. Now it's personal. It wasn't just that they had punished the wrong person, it was that they had punished the wrong, wrong person. Sure, OK, yes. I was peeing on the floor. But Grandma was peeing in her pants. The only one not peeing where he wasn't supposed to was Noodles, and now he was gone.
I drank. I drank water, I drank soda, I drank lemonade, I drank tea. I peed in the den, I peed in the kitchen, I peed in the foyer, I peed on the carpeted stairs.
For the first few days my parents still blamed Noodles.
That damn dog, my mother said. Scrubbing her way down the stairs. You see what he did to this house?
But when new pee spots continued to appear, it was clear to everyone that a grave miscarriage of justice had been done. The peer was still in the house.
I drank and I peed, and I drank and I peed. And then, one day, I came home from school and Grandma was gone.
We need to talk, said my mother.
About what, I asked.
About Grandma. My mother's sighed and explained that they found Grandma a home where she could get the care and attention she needed.
Can we get Noodles back? I asked.
It's in Brooklyn, said my mother. Nice of you to ask.
Can we get Noodles back?
It's not that simple, she said. And then she explained what happens at the pound to dogs that get returned. And to dogs that nip. And what the expression "put down" means. And I felt the strength drain out of my legs and I sank onto the couch and buried my face in my hands.
Hey, she said rubbing my shoulder, we'll get another dog.
What had started with pee on the carpet had ended with blood on my hands. I was angry at Grandma, but I didn't want them to put her down too. I thought about being brave, about owning up to what I had done. But I wasn't brave. I knew my father would kill me, and then there'd be three dead bodies. And so I took a deep breath, told my mother I wanted to get a big dog this time. And together, we went upstairs for dinner.
Shalom Auslander is the author of several books, including most recently, Foreskin's Lament.
Our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Sean Cole, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help of [? Andy Dixon. ?] Seth Lind is our production manager. Music help from Jessica Hopper.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who swears that he will not take the fall. It was not him who stole the plagiarism copy of Car Talk's Greatest Hits.
But I didn't do it. I frigging wasn't even there. The things weren't even there.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories on This American Life.
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