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November 20, 2003
Cash Limbaugh, Continued...

First Rush Limbaugh was the unwitting victim of a highly addictive painkiller that he had no idea was a highly addictive painkiller:

"I first started taking prescription painkillers some years ago when my doctor prescribed them to treat post surgical pain following spinal surgery…This medication turned out to be highly addictive."

Now that people are raising questions about the dozens of large cash withdrawals he made at U.S. Trust, he's the unwitting victim of a lazy bank:

"And at this time when they were pitching their services to me, they told me that when I was going to withdraw cash, keep it under $10,000 so they wouldn't have to report anything to the government. There was a $10,000 reporting requirement and they said if you keep it under that, then nobody has to file any paperwork and so forth and so on, meaning them at the bank, and so that's what I did."

U.S. Trust is a bank for super-rich people; Fortune once described it as "one of the oldest and toniest asset-management firms for the well-to-do." It's been around since 1853, and it manages over $90 billion in assets for families, institutions, and wealthy individuals like Limbaugh.

Would an institution like this, which is designed to provide superior service to its privileged, pampered clientele, advise customers to do something that was legally questionable in order to cut down on its own paperwork? It's certainly possible, but it doesn't sound like very good business.

On the other hand, would a service-oriented institution like U.S. Trust look the other way when clients, aware that cash withdrawals of $10,000 or more triggered reports to the government, made frequent withdrawals for just under that amount? It seems reasonable that it might.

So how did it really happen? Did U.S. Trust proactively encourage its clients to keep their withdrawals under $10,000, as Limbaugh contends, or did it merely accommodate those clients who preferred to do this?

Here's one article about the case, from the East Bay Business Times. Here's another, originally published in the LA Times.

Neither one raises the possibility that U.S. Trust was trying to cut down on its paperwork by instructing its clients to avoid withdrawals over $10,000. Instead, they suggest that U.S. Trust was engaging in these practices as a form of customer service. According to the East Bay Business Times, "Charles Schwab Corp.'s U.S. Trust unit was fined $10 million by regulators for allegedly helping clients around securities laws and allegedly failing to comply with anti-money-laundering rules, among other charges."

According to the L.A. Times, "Banks and other financial institutions that cater to the wealthy face a difficult balance between trying to comply with money- laundering regulations and serving legitimate customers who don't want transactions delayed by bank compliance procedures, said Bruce Zagaris, a New York attorney who specializes in international law and banking regulation."

Meanwhile, let's say it happened just like Limbaugh says it did. He established an account with U.S. Trust. They told him not to make cash withdrawals for $10,000 or more so they could avoid filing reports to the government. He's an inquisitive sort, so even if he was unfamiliar with the reasons why the government has implemented this policy, wouldn't he have asked? And once he knew that this policy helps the federal government crack down on money-launderers and drug dealers, why didn't he simply tell U.S. Trust that he would prefer to comply with government regulations rather than help them reduce their paperwork?

Finally, regarding Limbaugh's voracious need for untraceable cash…

Limbaugh said he needed $300,000 to $400,000 for a "two-and-a-half-year remodel we did for the home in Palm Beach" and travel, food, and gratuities. No doubt Limbaugh has a lavish lifestyle, and he could afford to blow millions each year. So far, though, he hasn't issued any explanation for why he used cash rather than checks or credit cards to pay for the remodel, plane tickets, and hotel accomodations. And as far as pocket money goes, US Trust allows customers to withdraw up to $1000 a day via its ATM network.

No doubt there's a perfectly logical, probably obvious explanation to Limbaugh's seemingly strange penchant for cash. For some reason, however, he has yet to reveal what it is.

Posted by Greg Beato at 10:17 AM
November 19, 2003
Haggling Genius

A few years ago, an editor at Wired asked me to review A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I started reading it, but about halfway through, it occurred to me that Wired rarely (never?) reviewed books without a tech component. The hook with A Heartbreaking Work was that the offices of the Eggers-edited Might were either near or in the same building as Wired once upon a time - but was that enough? Since I generally had limited success getting published in Wired, even when they assigned me stuff, I figured that I was just setting myself up for a kill fee. I'd read the book, write the review, then they'd say, "Hmm, where are the robot dogs? We can't run this." So I decided to circumvent such aggravations by not writing a review after all. And then of course the book went on to be a literary phenomenon and I missed out on the chance to be one of the first people to pass judgement on it. Oh well. Now I'm selling my copy of the advanced uncorrected proofs on Ebay, so if you're the sort of person who collects literary rarities, go make a bid on it...

Posted by Greg Beato at 02:44 PM
Cash Limbaugh

So reports that Rush Limbaugh made between 30 and 40 cash withdrawals of just under $10,000. The story doesn't give a time-frame for these withdrawals, but suggests that they happened before July 2001, which is when Limbaugh's bank, US Trust, "paid a $10 million fine because of the Limbaugh transactions and many others like it."

In any case, all those withdrawals total somewhere between $300,000 to $400,000 in cash. Limbaugh's attorney denied that Limbaugh was engaged in money-laundering, but not that he used the money to buy drugs. And, really, what else would you need $300,000 to $400,000 in untraceable cash for? Hookers, maybe, or Las Vegas stress relief with William Bennett, but the most likely scenario seems like drugs.

Meanwhile, the first story that the New York Daily News ran on the Limbaugh case reports that his former housekeeper and alleged drug supplier Wilma Cline claims she received payments of at least $200,000 more than a year after his US Trust withdrawals must have ended:

In June 2002, Limbaugh told her he was going to New York for detox a second time. After he returned, "I went to talk to him, and he cried a little bit," she said. "He told me that if it ever got out, he would be ruined." She claimed that a lawyer for Limbaugh gave her a payoff - $80,000 he owed her, plus another $120,000 - and asked her to destroy the computer that contained the E-mail records.

If Cline's telling the truth, it's possible Limbaugh spent nearly $500,000 on drug payments! (That is, $400,000 plus $80,000.) And that sum doesn't even cover the full length of his addiction. (He says his drug addiction began in 1995 or 1996 and that it continued until October 2003. Cline implies that she stopped supplying him drugs in June 2002.)

Of course, for a guy who pays (?) $268,494.68 a year in property tax alone, half a million bucks is just a drop in the bucket...

UPDATE: Here's Limbaugh's explanation for how he spent all that cash: "The cash in question here, most of it had to do with the two-and-a-half-year remodel we did for the home in Palm Beach. In fact, most of the money was not even withdrawn here in New York. I don't live in New York. And throughout most of this period that's in question, I have not lived in New York. So just one of the many areas, the money was for travel, it was for food, it was for gratuities, as I was out and about and playing a lot of golf tournaments as you know building the house. I think the total amount of money they're talking about here comes to about $300,000 over five or six years. It's a lot of money, but given the amount of money I earn and so forth, it's pretty much in proportion with, you know, what anybody else earns in terms of the percentage of walking-around money and cash that they use for things."

Sounds like Limbaugh doesn't believe in checks or credit cards. Stuff that doesn't really add up: a 2 1/2-year remodel on a $24 million house costs less than $300,000? And you pay your contractors in cash? Also, doesn't Limbaugh know what an ATM is? He makes it sound like these withdrawals were the only times he got cash. Granted, the $200 limit on most ATM machines wouldn't give a high roller a lot of walking-around money, but how often do you really need walking-around money these days? Doesn't Krispy Kreme take credit cards?

Posted by Greg Beato at 09:59 AM

From the SF Chronicle: "Schwarzenegger will hold at least five fund-raisers throughout the state in December to retire up to $7 million in campaign debts and loans, and is launching a tandem fund-raising effort to pay for political activity next year...Schwarzenegger launched his campaign by saying 'special interests' wield too much power in the Capitol, and he continued that theme in his inauguration speech, saying: 'I enter this office beholden to no one except you, my fellow citizens. I pledge my governorship to your interests, not to special interests...' Asked at a news conference on Tuesday to clarify his meaning of 'special interest,' Schwarzenegger, as he did on the campaign trail, narrowly defined them as Indian tribes with casinos and public employee unions but excluded mention of major corporations with business interests before the state."

Posted by Greg Beato at 08:31 AM
November 16, 2003
Absolutely Negative

Critiquing media coverage for being too negative is like complaining that water's too wet. Skepticism, contrarian perspectives, demands for accountability, and sensationalism are in large part what makes news news. This was true long before President Bush decided to keep us safe from Iraq by turning it into Disneyland for murderous fanatics, and it will be true a hundred years from now. And yet, ever since the war began, a bipartisan chorus of rebel ombudsmen have been wailing like a troupe of soaked cats about the media's overly negative coverage of Iraq.

The consequences of such negativity? Last month, in a blast of gusty oratory that defied physics, logic, and patriotic correctness, Democratic congressman Jim Marshall laid out the prosecution's case: "The falsely bleak picture weakens our national resolve, discourages Iraqi cooperation and emboldens our enemy...I'm afraid it is killing our troops."

The Department of Defense must have been frustrated by that last declaration: all those billions spent on body armor and other protective gear, and it turns out the real danger isn't bullets, rockets, and improvised explosive devices - instead, it's pessimistic reporting. Take this line of "reasoning" to its logical conclusion and you have to ask: by assigning some of the blame for American casualties on the media, Marshall is partially absolving insurgents and terrorists of their misdeeds - is this an act of treason? I'll leave that question for experts like Ann Coulter to ponder. Me, I'm more interested in the implication that our enemies are not as steadfastly evil as we have been led to believe. Indeed, what happened to Saddam and his Baathist thugs, who were so hellbent on nuking America that suitcase Armageddon was imminently imminent? And what happened to the Islamofascist thugs of Al Qaeda, who lived only to destroy Western civilization? All the sudden they're wavering? All the sudden, in order to attack us, they require the moral certainty that only a harshly worded Maureen Dowd column can provide? For the last two years, the primary rationale for invading Iraq, and Afghanistan before it, was that extreme military force was the only way to deal with foes who had inexorably pledged themselves to our destruction. Apparently now, though, all it takes to get them to disarm is more upbeat stories about "restored electricity and reopened schools."

Still, don't underestimate the potential for happy-news blowback. One of President Bush's favorite refrains of late is that the bad news is actually the good news. Last week, for example, he told British journalists that the insurgents see "progress being made," and thus are "desperately trying" to reverse that progress by blowing up buildings and helicopters. If this is true, though, doesn't it mean that negative media coverage is actually helping our cause? A more positive spin in the press would simply make all those couch-potato terrorists even more desperate, and thus, more deadly.

Of course, there's also the millions of Iraqis who are glad that the 30-year nightmare of Saddam's murderously oppressive regime has ended, and yet might still side with insurgents simply because the news media has given coalition efforts a few middling reviews. Alas, only in Al Gore's dreams is the media so potent. Media coverage can reinforce perceptions, it can even help shape events, but it can't completely transform reality. (If it could, then the dot-com era would have never ended.) And if a few dozen U.S. reporters are truly so persuasive that they can brainwash a nation of 23 million into believing things for which there is no legitimate basis for belief, how come the Pentagon doesn't just triple the salaries of these reporters and put them on staff at Hi!?

Here in the U.S. on the other hand, it's possible that negative media coverage could ultimately have an impact. Many Americans aren't as committed to annihilating Islamofascist terrorists as they are to annihilating us. And because we're not there to witness first-hand whatever progress is being made in between copter crashes and hotel explosions, perhaps all the stories of American deaths, spiraling costs, and strategic indirection do have an impact on our collective resolve. As it turns out, though, the American public isn't in charge of determining our efforts in Iraq; the Bush Administration is. When millions of people around the world protested the imminent invasion of Iraq, Bush scorned them. "Size of protest, it's like deciding, 'Well, I'm going to decide policy based up on a focus group,'" he exclaimed. "The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security - in this case - security of the people."

Has the role of a leader changed between April and November? If the sentiment of millions didn't matter then, does it matter now? It's possible, of course, that a Higher Power has changed His plans for Bush. Last spring, Commerce Secretary Don Evans told USA Today that Bush believed "he was called by God to lead the nation at this time." At that point, apparently, the plan was to save Western civilization. Now, with American opinion shifting against Bush's handling of Iraq, perhaps God's new plan for our president simply involves reelection. Only if that's true, however, will negative media coverage really have much impact on what happens in Iraq.

Posted by Greg Beato at 11:02 PM