16 May 2007

New York Post on an FOI re the PPT

My request for information about the actions of the secretive Working Group on Financial Markets at the Treasury Department "seems to have fallen through the cracks," according to the wording of an internal government document I just got my hands on.

That document, dated April 5, 2007, indicates that the Treasury's Disclosure Services division spent quite a lot of time discussing the request I made last summer under the government's Freedom of Information Act.

In fact, "Spotlight on New York Post FOIA Request" is the final issue on a seven-item agenda. And the 13-page PowerPoint presentation titled "Bottom Line" devotes a page and a half to the Post's request.

One of the "lessons learned and the way ahead," according to this presentation, is to "process and respond to Mr. Crudele's requests ASAP."

It's now more than a month since that meeting and I still haven't received documents or even an official letter. I guess ASAP might mean something other than "as soon as possible" in government lingo -- perhaps "as soon as pigsfly."

For those of you who haven't been following this saga, let me fill you in.

Back when Goldman Sachs Chairman Henry Paulson took over as Treasury secretary nearly a year ago, I did a multi-column investigation of the Working Group on Financial Markets, which is also endearingly nicknamed the Plunge Protection Team.

As far as I can tell, variations of the group have been in existence since the late 1980s. The PPT operates in that shadowy space between the government's desire to keep the market safe for national security reasons and Wall Street's desire to keep prices up for selfish reasons.

Other newspapers have since reported that -- unlike his predecessors -- Paulson calls frequent meetings of the Plunge Protection Team, which now seems to include Wall Street big shots as well as top officials such as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and New York Stock Exchange Chairman John Thain.

It's nice that all these folks have time to get together. And it is wonderful that the naive media think these meetings of government and finance brains are innocent. But I'm suspicious.

Of what?

I believe the Plunge Protection Team has emergency powers to protect the stock market if the situation warrants it. (Incidentally, I wholly support such action.)

But I also believe that the Plunge Protectors -- left unchecked -- could cause a tremendous loss of confidence in our financial markets. And they could create the very national security problems they think are fixing.

That's why I've asked for the minutes of meetings of the Plunge Protection Team on very specific dates when the stock market pulled a couple of rabbits out of its hat.

I didn't want to get greedy, so I kept the scope of my search narrow.

But apparently I must have guessed right and asked about sensitive enough issues because the Treasury ignored that first request and hasn't been any more obliging in response to follow-up letters.

It was only after I wrote an open letter to Paulson and published it in this column on April 3 that Treasury seemed to get the message. Two days later I was on the agenda of its FOIA Operations Overview.

At that meeting it appears that the folks at Treasury decided that my "request does not meet the criteria for an expedited request and asked the OGC [Office of General Counsel][for] concurrence on April 4."

Expedited! The request for this information was made last July!

I also got the impression when I spoke with a Treasury official last week that my request was about to be turned down.

A spokesman at Treasury told me that the government was trying to determine who the "appeals officer" was for this case -- an indication, I imagine, that I'm going to be asked to beg someone else for the information to which we are legally entitled.

I'm not surprised. Congress has tried to crack the mystery of the Plunge Protection Team and failed.

After my first FOIA request was filed, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, last fall asked for the very same things I did -- the minutes of the Working Group's meetings.

"An informal inquiry to Treasury from our office yielded nothing. They claim such minutes are not taken and don't exist," one of Paul's people told me in an e-mail last September.

Very interesting! This intriguing group of government officials and private financiers meets regularly under Paulson and nobody keeps a record of what they discuss or do.

Why am I so interested?

If the Plunge Protection Team is doing what I suspect -- namely, coming to the rescue of stocks whenever it deems it necessary -- this would not only change the entire nature of investing in this country but would be the biggest financial story ever.

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