"No one will know until this is actually in place how it works," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., of the Senate's slapdash financial reform bill. He ought to know: He co-sponsored the bill along with Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. Two weeks after its passage, we've already seen one outrageous result: Thanks to an unnoticed provision of the bill, the Securities and Exchange Commission is now declaring itself exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests, one of the bulwarks of government transparency.
Perhaps no other government agency has seen so many high-profile failures in recent years as the SEC. The regulatory agency failed to anticipate the collapse of insurance behemoth AIG, and it whiffed on the related mortgage securities free-for-all that wrecked the economy, prompting trillions in taxpayer bailouts. Despite warnings about his dealings going back to 1992, it failed to act on numerous tips that Bernie Madoff was running a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. The SEC also missed mountebank Allen Stanford's billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, despite tips going back 12 years.
Harry Markopolos, one of the prescient Madoff whistleblowers, has since said the SEC was not only "financially illiterate" but also "captive to the industry it regulates and ... afraid of bringing big cases against the largest most powerful firms." It's thanks to FOIA requests that we know the SEC failed to act earlier on Madoff and Stanford.
More recently, the SEC's inspector general started an investigation into the recent securities fraud settlement with Goldman Sachs. Despite what appeared to be an open-and-shut fraud case, the SEC settled for $550 million with Goldman, or a measly .03 percent of the cash assets the firm held in the first quarter of the year. There's also the matter of the timing of the settlement -- it was announced just hours after the passage of the financial reform bill in the Senate, which we now know insulated the SEC from outside probes about its backroom dealings. At least one SEC commissioner who voted against the settlement questioned the political motives of her colleagues in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, recently told Fox Business there's a "100 percent" chance the law can be overturned. That can't happen soon enough. For now, we don't know what secrets the SEC is holding, but whatever they are, it looks like Congress and the SEC have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide them.