February 13, 2012: While down with the flu in January, I read a lot of Richard Stark. Aka Donald Westlake. A pile of volumes from Stark/Westlake’s Parker series towered on my nightstand. The adventures and misadventures of Parker, an ultra cold hearted professional thief, were the perfect antidote to fever.
The late Donald Westlake grew up in Albany, New York. When interviewed in 1995, Westlake sounded sardonic and oblique about his youth in the capital city. And while a number of books in the Parker series take place in upstate New York, Albany is never a central location*. Characters pass through it or around it. Usually in a stolen car.
In Backflash (Mysterious Press, 1998) Albany as the seat of state government is central to the plot, yet few scenes are set in the city. A complex heist and series of murders are put in motion by Hilliard Cathman, a retired fiscal planner for the state. Cathman whiles away his retiree time as a public policy consultant with a low rent office near the “huge dark stone pile of the statehouse”. He is, as Parker puts it, one of the “camp followers of state government”.
Due to his opposition to legalized gambling, Cathman is an unsuccessful camp follower. His potential clients in legislative places are eager to tap into a major new source of revenue; Cathman won’t give them his consultant stamp of approval. His objections to gambling are arguable but reasonable. But as Parker suspects, Cathman’s ego investment in being proven right has become unbalanced.
To prove his premise that gambling draws crime, Cathman recruits Parker to rob a riverboat casino that’s being allowed to ply the Hudson between Albany and Poughkeepsie as a limited-time experiment. The casino’s political backers hope the experiment proves so successful as to open the door to gambling statewide. As a fiscal planner for the state, Cathman was privy to inside info about the casino’s security arrangements, etc. He feeds the info to Parker and his crew. They successfully pull the heist.
As usual in a Parker book, there are numerous slips twixt cup and lip. Most caused by the greed and stupidity of pilot fish swarming the haul. But the wildest card in the set-up is Cathman. In a final confrontation in Cathman’s home in Delmar (an Albany suburb popular with state employees) Parker discovers just how far round the bend Cathman has gone– and that he has a self-aggrandizing plan which if allowed to play out will doom Parker.
How many times do regular citizens make the same discovery about policy planners? Parker is Everyman!
Speaking of planners with killer bees in their bonnets…
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo is big on forging more public-private partnerships as engines of state economic development. He said so in his Executive Budget speech on January 17th. (While sick I read non-fiction fiction as well as the real stuff.)
Yes indeed. More crony capitalism will cure New York’s economic ills. And Anna Nicole Smith needed bigger breast implants.
New York is crony capitalism central. The quadruple D example? The public-private partnership of Wall Street and Washington that pumped the housing bubble and sank the economy beneath a mountain of dodgy mortgage-backed investment paper. As assistant secretary and then secretary of HUD from 1993 to 2001, Andrew Cuomo helped steer housing policy when the bubble started swelling and the paper flying. Cuomo’s HUD policies included pushing “a reform that allowed Fannie (Mae) and Freddie (Mac) to receive affordable-housing credit for buying private subprime mortgage-backed securities”**.
HUD was also the parent organization of OFHEO (Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight), the agency then charged with oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. OFHEO, under Cuomo and other HUD heads, resisted efforts to change Fannie and Freddie’s murky and ultimately disastrous public-private status.
By the time the bubble popped, Andrew Cuomo was New York State Attorney General. In 2007, Attorney General Cuomo announced that in light of the pop, he was launching an investigation into “industry-wide mortgage fraud”. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were prime targets. In a letter to Freddie Mac Cuomo implied that Fan and Fred had colluded with lenders to profit from mortgages based on inflated appraisals. In a matter of months, Cuomo’s investigation dissolved into a payout of $24 million from Fannie and Freddie. No admittance of wrongdoing required. The fraud problem was found to lay mainly with– and could be corrected at– the appraisal level.
Fannie and Freddie’s payout went to establishing the Independent Valuations Protection Institute. The institute, with board members approved by Andrew Cuomo, would monitor lenders for compliance with a new Home Valuation Code of Conduct (HVCC) authored by Cuomo. Though merely a state attorney general, Cuomo’s national clout re appraisal policy was enhanced by support for the code from OFHEO, the agency overseeing Fannie and Freddie.
In the bubble years many appraisers complained about being pressured by lenders to inflate values. Yet equally large numbers hate the reform Cuomo engineered. Some claim he had a conflict of interest when establishing HVCC.
Starting in 2004 and until becoming NY attorney general, Cuomo was chairman of the board of advisors at Appraisal Management Company (AMCO) a Cleveland-based private “independent valuations solutions company” doing business with national lenders. AMCO, a subsidiary of Worldwide Outsource Solutions Ltd., had a board full of HUD; including former HUD secretary Jack Kemp (under Bush 1) and assistant secretary William Apgar (under Clinton). Edward J. Davidson (Ed Davidson), CEO and board chairman of AMCO and Worldwide Outsource, has been a consultant for Fannie Mae.
In October, 2004, Cuomo, Kemp and Apgar told reporters at the Mortgage Bankers Association annual convention that “the integrity of the appraisal process has broken down”. American Banker described the presentation as “part admonishment of lenders, part sales pitch for a vendor”.***
In March, 2005, Cuomo, Davidson, Kemp and Apgar, in a letter on AMCO stationary, pressed OFHEO’s drirector, Armando Falcon, to have a “totally independent source” review the loans within Fannie and Freddie’s “securities field”.
In February 2006, AMCO issued a press release applauding board member Andrew Cuomo’s support for the newly formed non-profit Appraisal Advocacy Coalition. According to Inman News (a real estate publication), the coalition’s missions included protecting appraisers from “unfair competition“.
Maybe HVCC was a much needed reform. Note “was”. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is slated to end HVCC. (Then again, it may just be whittled down. Appraisers fear that the reports of HVCC’s death are greatly exaggerated.)
Discerning the true motives of public-private players can be tough. When on the public side, they so often launch investigations and reforms that obfuscate obfuscate obfuscate. I say keep the public public and the private private. It makes the game easier to call.
When Governor Andrew Cuomo touts public-private partnerships as the path to NY economic development, a sizable majority of New Yorkers get starry eyed. Not I. It took more than the housing bubble and its bad paper and players to make me an unbeliever. Viewing New York’s public-private deal maker, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC or ESD), in action has also been instructive…
See corruption and wishful thinking meet and marry! See billions in public money tossed at elephantine projects that come to naught! See ginormous tax breaks produce handfuls of jobs in depressed regions! And oh yeah– see small property owners get dispossessed at the behest of powerful developers. Rampant eminent domain abuse being one of the rottenest of New York’s public-private fruits.
Next up in the fruit bowl: Governor Cuomo’s plan for a massive Las Vegas style casino in New York City. Most likely at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. The casino would be built by the Genting Group of Malaysia. (They already run slots at Aqueduct.) To enhance the project, the state would erect “the largest convention center in the nation” nearby. And get this; the casino could put all of New York State on “an inside track to expanded gambling.”
I just hope nobody tries to chill the project with a Parker.
As for Cuomo, his crony capitalism fever keeps rising. In late January, corporate campaign donors with their eyes on infrastructure prizes paid $50,000 each to sit next to Cuomo on a panel at a national Democratic Governors Association conference. The confab, which was held in Manhattan, was hosted by Governor Cuomo. No press or public allowed.
Sometimes it pays to go private.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
* “I’ll leave Albany to Bill Kennedy. He’s found a lot more there to write about than I did.” Mystery Man award-winning novelist Donald Westlake remembers his Albany haunts, Paul Grondahl, Albany Times Union, 10/21/95
** Cuomo’s HUD career under scrutiny, Buffalo News, 08/21/10
*** Fears about Appraisals, and Other MBA Buzz, Jody Shenn, American Banker, 10/27/04
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