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Archive for the ‘Obama administration’ Category

Obamacare’s Competitive Markets Are Starting to Work Pretty Well

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Some good news, reported in Mother Jones by Kevin Drum:

The decision last week by United Healthcare to drop out of Obamacare got a lot of attention, but the truth is that UH was a pretty small player in the exchanges. What’s more important—but hasn’t gotten much attention—is the fact that more and more Obamacare insurers are getting close to profitability. Richard Mayhew comments:

2014 was a year where there were only guesses about both the Exchange population, the market structure, and federal policy structure (specifically the risk corridor revenue neutrality restrictions. 2015 had a bit more clarity on who was coming into the market, what was working and what was not working, and what federal policy on risk corridors would actually be. 2016 is the first year where the policies are priced on functionally decent real information and some of the amazingly dumb strategic decisions have been unwound through either course changes or through exiting the market.

As a simple reminder, competitive markets should see some companies make money and some companies that offer more expensive and less attractive products lose money. I would be extremely worried if everyone was making money after three years, just like I would be extremely worried that everyone was losing money after three years of increasingly better data.

Obamacare critics have spent a lot of energy trying to pretend that premiums on the exchanges have skyrocketed, but that’s never been true. What is true is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2016 at 8:27 am

Signs of decline: The F-35’s Software Is So Buggy It Might Ground the Whole Fleet

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Dan Grazier reports for Motherboard:

Last summer, F-35 program officer Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan said the F-35’s logistics system was “the brains and blood of operating this weapons system.”

Despite many fixes, the aircraft’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) is so flawed that government auditors believe the computer system may not be deployable. These problems may also delay the Air Force’s declaration of Initial Operational Capability. And now, in a surprising twist, Bogdan is saying ALIS is not really critical after all, insisting the F-35 can fly without it for 30 days.

F-35 supporters enjoy telling people how the plane is a “flying computer,” as if that alone makes it worth the hundreds of billions of dollars spent so far. Lockheed Martin goes one step further, calling it a “supercomputer” in its own promotional materials.

ALIS is the ground-based computer system meant to diagnose mechanical problems, order and track replacement parts, and guide maintenance crews through repairs. It also allows pilots to plan missions and later review their performance. At least, it’s supposed to do all of those things.

So far, the software has been so flawed that maintenance crews have had to resort to time-consuming workarounds. In one instance, maintainers even had to manually burn data onto CDs and drive off base to send the massive files across a civilian WiFi network.

The plane is absolutely dependent on computer technology and millions of lines of software code to operate. So the fact that ALIS is years behind schedule and plagued with bugs is particularly disturbing. The Government Accountability Office has nowreleased a report confirming POGO’s earlier reporting: flaws in ALIS can ground the entire fleet.

The program office dismissed the gravity of this finding, a position that puts the office at odds with itself. Testifying before Congress in 2014 and explaining the Joint Program Office’s renewed development efforts, Bogdan said “the enterprise now deals with ALIS as if it is a ‘weapons system’ and a critical part of the F-35 program.”

Also from 2015, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley said that “the responsiveness, the timeliness of ALIS information for the maintainers and for the warfighter is at the top of our priority list.”

And just this year, Bogdan said, “It is a software-intensive system that connects to almost every piece of the F-35 program.” . . .

Continue reading.

From later in the article: “could lead to $20–100 billion in additional costs.”

Written by LeisureGuy

26 April 2016 at 4:11 pm

America’s embrace of war crimes (if done by the US)

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Tom Englehardt writes at TomDispatch.com:

Let’s take a moment to think about the ultimate strangeness of our American world.  In recent months, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have offered a range of hair-raising suggestions: as president, one or the other of them might order the U.S. military and the CIA to commit acts that would include the waterboarding of terror suspects (or “a hell of a lot worse”), thekilling of the relatives of terrorists, and the carpet bombing of parts of Syria.  All of these would, legally speaking, be war crimes.  This has caused shock among many Americans in quite established quarters who have decried the possibility of such a president, suggesting that the two of them are calling for outright illegal acts, actual “war crimes,” and that the U.S. military and others would be justified in rejecting such orders.  In this context, for instance, CIA Director John Brennan recently made it clear that no Agency operative under his command would ever waterboard a suspect in response to orders of such a nature from a future president.  (“I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure.”)

These acts, in other words, are considered beyond the pale when Donald Trump suggests them, but here’s the strangeness of it all: what The Donald is only mouthing off about, a perfectly real American president (and vice president and secretary of defense, and so on) actually did.  Among other things, under the euphemistic term “enhanced interrogation techniques,” they ordered the CIA to use classic torture practices including waterboarding (which, in blunter times, had been known as “the water torture”).  They also let the U.S. military loose to torture and abuse prisoners in their custody.  They green-lighted the CIA tokidnap terror suspects (who sometimes turned out to be perfectly innocent people) off the streets of cities around the world, as well as from the backlands of the planet, and transported them to the prisons of some of the worst torture regimes or to secret detention centers (“black sites”) the CIA was allowed to set up in compliant countries.  In other words, a perfectly real administration ordered and oversaw perfectly real crimes.  (Its top officials even reportedly had torture techniques demonstrated to them in the White House.)

At the time, the CIA fulfilled its orders to a T and without complaint. A lone CIA officer spoke out publicly in opposition to such a program and was jailed for disclosing classified information to a journalist.  (He would be the only CIA official to go to jail for the Agency’s acts of torture.)  At places like Abu Ghraib, the military similarly carried out its orders without significant complaint or resistance.  The mainstream media generally adopted the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “harsh techniques” in its reporting — no “torture” or “war crimes” for them then.  And back in the post-2001 years, John Brennan, then deputy executive director of the CIA, didn’t offer a peep of protest about what he surely knew was going on in his own agency. In 2014, in fact, as its director he actually defendedsuch torture practices for producing “intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives.”  In addition, none of those who ordered or oversaw torture and other criminal behavior (a number of whom would sell their memoirs for millions of dollars) suffered in the slightest for the acts that were performed on their watch and at their behest.

To sum up: when Donald Trump says such things it’s a future nightmare to be called by its rightful name and denounced, as well as rejected and resisted by military and intelligence officials.  When an American president and his top officials actually did such things, however, it was another story entirely. Today, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon catches the nightmarish quality of those years, now largely buried, in the grim case of a single mistreated human being. It should make Americans shudder. She has also just published a new book, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, that couldn’t be more relevant.  It’s a must-read for a country conveniently without a memory. Tom

The Al-Qaeda Leader Who Wasn’t
The Shameful Ordeal of Abu Zubaydah
By Rebecca Gordon

The allegations against the man were serious indeed.

* Donald Rumsfeld said he was “if not the number two, very close to the number two person” in al-Qaeda.

* The Central Intelligence Agency informed Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee that he “served as Usama Bin Laden’s senior lieutenant. In that capacity, he has managed a network of training camps… He also acted as al-Qaeda’s coordinator of external contacts and foreign communications.”

* CIA Director Michael Hayden would tell the press in 2008 that 25% of all the information his agency had gathered about al-Qaeda from human sources “originated” with one other detainee and him.

* George W. Bush would use his case to justify the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” claiming that “he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained” and that “he helped smuggle al-Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan” so they would not be captured by U.S. military forces.

None of it was true.

And even if it had been true, what the CIA did to Abu Zubaydah — with the knowledge and approval of the highest government officials — is a prime example of the kind of still-unpunished crimes that officials like Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld committed in the so-called Global War on Terror.

So who was this infamous figure, and where is he now? His name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, but he is better known by his Arabic nickname, Abu Zubaydah. And as far as we know, he is still in solitary detention in Guantánamo.

A Saudi national, in the 1980s Zubaydah helped run the Khaldan camp, a mujahedeen training facility set up in Afghanistan with CIA help during the Soviet occupation of that country. In other words, Zubaydah was then an American ally in the fight against the Soviets, one of President Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters.”  (But then again, so in effect was Osama bin Laden.)

Zubaydah’s later fate in the hands of the CIA was of a far grimmer nature.  He had the dubious luck to be the subject of a number of CIA “firsts”: the first post-9/11 prisoner to be waterboarded; the first to be experimented on by psychologists working as CIA contractors; one of the first of the Agency’s “ghost prisoners” (detainees hidden from the world, including the International Committee of the Red Cross which, under the Geneva Conventions, must be allowed access to every prisoner of war); and one of the first prisoners to be cited in a memo written by Jay Bybee for the Bush administration on what the CIA could “legally” do to a detainee without supposedly violating U.S. federal laws against torture.

Zubaydah’s story is — or at least should be — the iconic tale of the illegalextremes to which the Bush administration and the CIA went in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. And yet former officials, from CIA head Michael Hayden to Vice President Dick Cheney to George W. Bush himself, have presented it as a glowing example of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to extract desperately needed information from the “evildoers” of that time.

Zubaydah was an early experiment in post-9/11 CIA practices and here’s the remarkable thing (though it has yet to become part of the mainstream media accounts of his case): it was all a big lie. Zubaydah wasn’t involved with al-Qaeda; he was the ringleader of nothing; he never took part in planning for the 9/11 attacks. He was brutally mistreated and, in another kind of world, would be exhibit one in the war crimes trials of America’s top leaders and its major intelligence agency.

Yet notorious as he once was, he’s been forgotten by all but his lawyers and a few tenacious reporters.  He shouldn’t have been.  He was the test case for the kind of torture that Donald Trump now wants the U.S. government to bring back, presumably because it “worked” so well the first time. With Republican presidential hopefuls promising future war crimes, it’s worth reconsidering his case and thinking about how to prevent it from happening again. After all, it’s only because no one has been held to account for the years of Bush administration torture practices that Trump and others feel free to promise even more and “yuger” war crimes in the future.

Experiments in Torture

In August 2002, a group of FBI agents, CIA agents, and Pakistani forces captured Zubaydah (along with about 50 other men) in Faisalabad, Pakistan. In the process, he was severely injured — shot in the thigh, testicle, and stomach. He might well have died, had the CIA not flown in an American surgeon to patch him up. The Agency’s interest in his health was, however, anything but humanitarian. Its officials wanted to interrogate him and, even after he had recovered sufficiently to be questioned, his captors occasionally withheld pain medication as a means of torture.

When he “lost” his left eye under mysterious circumstances while in CIA custody, the agency’s concern again was not for his health. The December 2014 torture report produced by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (despite CIA opposition that included hacking into the committee’s computers) described the situation this way: with his left eye gone, “[i]n October 2002, DETENTION SITE GREEN [now known to be Thailand] recommended that the vision in his right eye be tested, noting that ‘[w]e have a lot riding upon his ability to see, read, and write.’ DETENTION SITE GREEN stressed that ‘this request is driven by our intelligence needs [not] humanitarian concern for AZ.’”

The CIA then set to work interrogating Zubaydah with the help of two contractors, thepsychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. Zubaydah would be the first human subject on whom those two, who were former instructors at the Air Force’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training center, could test their theories about using torture to induce what they called “learned helplessness,” meant to reduce a suspect’s resistance to interrogation. Their price? Only $81 million.

CIA records show that, using a plan drawn up by Jessen and Mitchell, Abu Zubaydah’s interrogators would waterboard him an almost unimaginable 83 times in the course of a single month; that is, they would strap him to a wooden board, place a cloth over his entire face, and gradually pour water through the cloth until he began to drown. At one point during this endlessly repeated ordeal, the Senate committee reported that Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”

Each of those 83 uses of what was called “the watering cycle” consisted of four steps:

1) demands for information interspersed with the application of the water just short of blocking his airway 2) escalation of the amount of water applied until it blocked his airway and he started to have involuntary spasms 3) raising the water-board to clear subject’s airway 4) lowering of the water-board and return to demands for information.

The CIA videotaped Zubaydah undergoing each of these “cycles,” only to destroy those tapes in 2005 when news of their existence surfaced and the embarrassment (and possible future culpability) of the Agency seemed increasingly to be at stake. CIA Director Michael Hayden would later assureCNN that the tapes had been destroyed only because “they no longer had ‘intelligence value’ and they posed a security risk.” Whose “security” was at risk if the tapes became public? Most likely, that of the Agency’s operatives and contractors who were breaking multiple national and international laws against torture, along with the high CIA and Bush administration officials who had directly approved their actions.

In addition to the waterboarding, . . .

Continue reading.

Of course, the CIA torturers have been protected by Obama’s refusal to follow the law specified in the Convention Against Torture, which as a treaty signed and confirmed by the US, is the law of the land.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2016 at 3:18 pm

Andrew Bacevich and America’s Long Misguided War to Control the Greater Middle East

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I hope Hillary Clinton reads this article by Roger Hodge in The Intercept:

THE CONVICTION that invasion, bombing, and special forces benefit large swaths of the globe, while remaining consonant with a Platonic ideal of the national interest, runs deep in the American psyche. Like the poet Stevie Smith’s cat, the United States “likes to gallop about doing good.” The cat attacks and misses, sometimes injuring itself, but does not give up. It asks, as the U.S. should,

What’s the good
Of galloping about doing good
When angels stand in the path
And do not do as they should

Nothing undermines the American belief in military force. No matter how often its galloping about results in resentment and mayhem, the U.S. gets up again to do good elsewhere. Failure to improve life in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya stiffens the resolve to get it right next time. This notion prevails among politicized elements of the officer corps; much of the media, whether nominally liberal or conservative; the foreign policy elite recycled quadrennially between corporation-endowed think tanks and government; and most politicians on the national stage. For them and the public they influence, the question is less whether to deploy force than when, where, and how.

Since 1979, when the Iranians overthrew the Shah and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. has concentrated its firepower in what former U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich calls the “Greater Middle East.” The region comprises most of what America’s imperial predecessors, the British, called the Near and Middle East, a vast zone from Pakistan west to Morocco. In his new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich writes, “From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in that region. Within a decade, a great shift occurred. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed anywhere exceptthe Greater Middle East.” That observation alone might prompt a less propagandized electorate to rebel against leaders who perpetuate policies that, while killing and maiming American soldiers, devastate the societies they touch.

Bacevich describes a loyal cadre of intellectuals and pundits favoring war after war, laying the moral ground for invasions and excusing them when they go wrong. He notes that in 1975, when American imperium was collapsing in Indochina, the guardians of American exceptionalism renewed their case for preserving the U.S. as the exception to international law. An article by Robert Tucker in Commentary that year set the ball rolling with the proposition that “to insist that before using force one must exhaust all other remedies is little more than the functional equivalent of accepting chaos.” Another evangelist for military action, Miles Ignotus, wrote in Harper’s two months later that the U.S. with Israel’s help must prepare to seize Saudi Arabia’s oilfields. Miles Ignotus, Latin for “unknown soldier,” turned out to be the known civilian and Pentagon consultant Edward Luttwak. Luttwak urged a “revolution” in warfare doctrine toward “fast, light forces to penetrate the enemy’s vital centers” with Saudi Arabia a test case. The practical test would come, with results familiar to most of the world, 27 years later in Iraq.

The Pentagon, its pride and reputation wounded in Vietnam as surely as the bodies of 150,000 scarred American soldiers, was slow to take the hint. The end of compulsory military service robbed it of manpower for massive global intervention. Revelations of war crimes and political chicanery from the Senate’s Church Committee and the Pike Committee in the House added to public disenchantment with military adventures and intelligence meddling in other countries’ affairs. It would take years of effort to cure America of its “Vietnam Syndrome,” the preference for diplomatic before military solutions.

In the Middle East, President Gerald Ford saw no reason to rescind his predecessor’s policy, the Nixon Doctrine of reliance on local clients armed by the U.S. to protect Persian Gulf oil for America’s gas-hungry consumers. Nothing much happened, though, until one of the local gendarmes, the Shah of Iran, fell to a popular revolution and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. . .

Continue reading.

Read the whole thing: definitely worthwhile.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 April 2016 at 11:45 am

Elizabeth Warren’s big win: The new, much-needed rule that could rein in Wall Street

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Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg report in Salon:

Are you in the market for some good news? While everyone is being told to follow the excitement of the 2016 campaign to the exclusion of all else, out of the spotlight but not far away, the Obama administration is calmly trying to enact lasting progressive change. In the Labor Department earlier this month, consumer advocates won a big battle, as the vast middle class was “gifted” with a new requirement being placed on the financial services industry. As Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren explained, a glaring conflict of interest has been resolved in the favor of people saving for retirement. No longer can investment advisers recommend funds to their clients that reward them or their firms; instead, they must, without exception, direct customers into the best financial products, with lower or, sometimes, zero fees.

In her inimitable style, Warren crowed: “No more pushing products that generate financial benefits for advisers, while draining the customer’s savings.” It’s a very simple principle: “No more free vacations, cars, bonuses, fees, and other kickbacks.” Her mantra, as we know, is fairness. Her legislative agenda is to introduce new legal protections for consumers. She is quick to point out that most financial advisers are ethical, and work hard to help their clients. But these individuals have, for many years, been forced to compete with “slick-talking” advisers whose recommendations reflect personal incentives and produce “terrible results” for middle-class savers, amounting, the Labor Department says, to many billions of dollars.

Firms must now make a full disclosure. Facing the music, the largest independent company that manages retirement savings, with $450 billion in retirement assets, right away cut account fees for investors by “up to 30 percent.” Retirees win. The system can adapt. As Warren stated: “Americans are tired of a Washington that works great for the big guys and doesn’t work for anyone else.”

You know who she sounds like? Frances Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor for the entirety of his presidency, and the first female cabinet member in U.S. history. She should never be forgotten. Having personally witnessed the Shirtwaist Triangle fire of 1911, a tragedy in New York’s Greenwich Village that took the lives of 146 garment workers, a young and inspired Fannie Perkins resolved to devote herself to the cause of the American worker. As the accomplished business journalist Kirstin Downey lays out in her 2009 biography, Perkins pushed constantly for child labor laws, for safety regulations and a host of other fair labor practices. To prevent workers from descending into poverty, she urged compensation for workplace injury; she saw to the imposition of a minimum wage for the first time–which in the mid-1930s was around 45 cents an hour–and she pioneered unemployment insurance as we know it.

As compellingly up-front, if perhaps less pleasantly in-your-face than Warren is, Perkins told FDR when he was president-elect to think twice about naming her to the cabinet: “If you don’t want these things done…, I’d be an embarrassment to you.” She fed public demand. Fortunately for Roosevelt’s own historical reputation, he was not afraid of a strong woman. It is arguable that, were it not for Secretary Perkins, Social Security would never have happened.

At the same event at which Warren spoke, Sen. Cory Booker put in his own two cents when it came to the resistance of established financial firms to the “best interest standard” that the DOL has given life to. The New Jersey senator called the previous system that for so long “bilked” investors of their retirement saving “an assault on the ideals of this country.” Under the old rules, brokers only had to honor a level of ethical performance that was euphemistically called a “suitability standard,” and Republicans predictably complained that the Obama administration was trying to place “an undue burden” on finance professionals. Booker, like Warren, would have none of that. “We’re not surrendering to cynicism in this country,” he challenged. . .

Continue reading.

Good news is always a pleasure, and a kudos to Obama for this.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 April 2016 at 10:02 am

Stonewalled by NSA, Members of Congress Ask Really Basic Question Again

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Dan Froomkin writes in The Intercept:

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is none too happy that the executive branch is asking them to reauthorize two key surveillance programs next year without answering the single most important question about them.

The programs, authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, are called PRISM and Upstream. PRISM collects hundreds of millions of internet communications of “targeted individuals” from providers such as Facebook, Yahoo and Skype. Upstream takes communications straight from the major U.S. Internet backbones run by telecommunication companies such as AT&T and Verizon and harvests data that involves selectors related to foreign targets.

But both programs, though nominally targeted at foreigners overseas, inevitably sweep us massive amounts of data involving innocent Americans.

The question is: How much? The government won’t answer.

Fourteen members of the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper on Friday asking for at least a rough estimate.

“In order that we may properly evaluate these programs, we write to ask that you provide us with a public estimate of the number of communications or transactions involving United States persons subject to Section 702 surveillance on an annual basis,” said the letter. Signatories included ranking Democrat John Conyers Jr. and a senior Republican member, James Sensenbrenner.

Sen. Ron Wyden has asked for a number since 2011; the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recommended in July 2014 that the government provide several. In October, more than 30 privacy groups asked for an estimate and explained how easy it would be to come up with one. . .

Continue reading.

NSA is refusing to answer because they know that Congress and the American public would be outraged by a true answer. It’s unclear why NSA doesn’t simply lie to Congress. James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, quite deliberately lied outright to Congress and nothing happened.

Obama, of course, is determined to keep government operations as secret as possible—for example, Obama shows no concern about poor responses to FOIA requests. It’s quite obvious that NSA knows the answer, and if Obama wanted, NSA would answer.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 April 2016 at 1:11 pm

GAO: JPMorgan Chase Customers Lost $5.4 Billion to Madoff

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Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

Buried in a report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was a stunning piece of news. Customers of JPMorgan Chase, the bank that Wall Street analyst Mike Mayo has preposterously called the “Lebron James of banking,” were major victims of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme – to the tune of $5.4 billion – because of negligence on the part of the bank. The report states the following:

“In 2014, DOJ [Department of Justice] assessed a $1.7 billion forfeiture – the largest penalty related to a BSA [Bank Secrecy Act] violation – against JPMorgan Chase Bank. DOJ cited the bank for its failure to detect and report the suspicious activities of Bernard Madoff. The bank failed to maintain an effective anti-money-laundering program and report suspicious transactions in 2008, which contributed to their customers losing about $5.4 billion in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.”

The JPMorgan Chase settlement with the Justice Department came in January 2014, more than two years ago, but thus far, according to the GAO, Madoff victims haven’t seen a dime of the money. According to the Special Master for the Justice Department, he’s still wading through 64,000 claim forms. The Justice Department’s Madoff Victim Fund functions separately from the victims fund being operated by the bankruptcytrustee, Irving Picard. That fund has already distributed $8.6 billion out of $11.1 billion recovered to date. The forfeiture laws under which the Justice Department’s fund will be operated allowed Madoff victims who invested through feeder funds, as well as through a direct account with Madoff, to submit a claim.

JPMorgan Chase and banks it had purchased had held the Madoff business account for more than two decades. According to the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC), the Justice Department prosecutors who settled the criminal case against JPMorgan Chase in the Madoff matter used the investigative material that Picard had already unearthed. That investigative material showed that JPMorgan Chase had relied on unaudited financial statements and skipped the required steps of bank due diligence to make $145 million in loans to Madoff’s business.

Lawyers for Picard wrote that from November 2005 through January 18, 2006, JPMorgan Chase loaned $145 million to Madoff’s business at a time when the bank was on “notice of fraudulent activity” in Madoff’s business account and when, in fact, Madoff’s business was insolvent. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 April 2016 at 11:11 am

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