If what this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar, as a long-ago politician once opined, the last thing it needs today is another federal police force. But that is what it seems to be getting.
According to news reports, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program has installed a crime-fighting unit that appears to be expanding despite the fact that the Treasury Department said more than two-thirds of the money disbursed under TARP has been repaid and 70 percent of the outstanding money is with the auto industry and AIG, the giant insurance company. Columnist Al Kamen of The Washington Post said the enforcement agency’s proposed budget is up 30 percent to $47 million.
Now it appears that in addition to the FBI, DEA, ATF, ICE, USSS, NCIS, et al., the new kid on the block has an acronym that stretches all across the back of their neat new action jackets underneath the block letters “FEDERAL AGENT.” It reads, “SIGTARP.” That’s just so there can be no mistaking the full weight of the U.S. government when they order, as a brilliant Post headline writer stated, “Drop the pencil and keep your assets in plain view” as they move in on errant bankers, financiers and mortgage lenders.
And to further back up the long arm of the federal law, these guys have more than sharp pencils in their shoulder holsters. They have badges, guns and flak jackets, and they are now seeking police equipment for their cars in Atlanta, New York, Long Beach and San Francisco — things like flashing colored lights for emergencies and official SIGTARP radios with loud speakers just like the real cops have. Holy default, Batman!
The order for the new equipment has been placed by the head of SIGTARP, Neil Barofsky, who, Kamen pointed out, is leaving at the end of the month.
None of this is terribly funny when one realizes the front-line federal law enforcement agencies are having problems with their own budgets in this economically stressed time. The FBI, ATF and DEA particularly are facing money woes despite the fact their operations are constantly being pressured to do more to make streets safe from terrorists, drug thugs and just plain murderers.
But then come to think about it, John Dillinger was small potatoes when it came to stealing money. The guys with whom SIGTARP agents must deal have been responsible for the loss of billions, never mind that their activities don’t involve the use of Tommy guns. And one never knows when a banking scoundrel might pull out an adding machine and throw it at someone. Where is Melvin Purvis when we need him? The old founder of Junior G-Men and his gang-busting boss, J. Edgar Hoover, are long gone, but it is not hard to imagine how they would regard something called SIGTARP.
Are we crazy? The answer is emphatically yes. Any crisis is cause for silly bureaucratic expansionism that somehow never goes away and becomes another one of those obscure but constant budget drains. How long before we can expect this newest batch of federal gun packers to be pulling people over with their red-and-blue lights on suspicion of falsifying their bank accounts or writing checks that are backed by insufficient funds? That, of course, is highly unlikely — but don’t be too sure.
When one thinks of the big-time swindlers these days, the model is Bernard Madoff. It took a tip from his sons to nail him after daddy confessed despite several years of suspicious activity that authorities ignored. The man trying to recover some of the funds he stole has repaid the siblings for their alert by making life tough for them, so much so that depression and the damage to his family name caused by his father led one of the sons to end his own life.
However, that’s a tragedy that a new force of federal police couldn’t have stymied even with all that new equipment and those snazzy jackets. Note of warning: If someone approaches who says he is from SIGTARP, reply that you’re the Man from UNCLE.
Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.