Reform reading: WikiLeaks has trove of U.S. bank documents

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WikiLeaks may soon give financial reform watchers a behind-the-scenes look at how executives at a major U.S. bank behave.

Julian Assange, who led WikiLeaks’ recent document dumps of tens of thousands of secret files from the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department, told Forbes’ Andy Greenberg that the organization will next turn its attention to releasing internal documents from a big American bank.

“It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume,” Assange said in his interview with Forbes. “For this, there’s only one similar example. It’s like the Enron emails. Why were these so valuable? When Enron collapsed, through court processes, thousands and thousands of emails came out that were internal, and it provided a window into how the whole company was managed. It was all the little decisions that supported the flagrant violations.

“Yes, there will be some flagrant violations, unethical practices that will be revealed, but it will also be all the supporting decision-making structures and the internal executive ethos that comes out, and that’s tremendously valuable,” Assange said. “You could call it the ecosystem of corruption. But it’s also all the regular decision making that turns a blind eye to and supports unethical practices: the oversight that’s not done, the priorities of executives, how they think they’re fulfilling their own self-interest.”

Assange gave no hints about the identity of the U.S. bank, saying the “mega-leak” of the bank documents will be released by WikiLeaks early in 2011.

Warren as political asset?

The White House should nominate Elizabeth Warren for the job of leading the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and use the ensuing Senate confirmation fight as a way to reach out to middle-class voters, says Baseline Scenario’s Simon Johnson.

Warren, who is now a presidential adviser helping to set up the bureau, has spent years calling for more transparency in financial markets and an end to the fine print that consumers can’t understand. Her populist appeal gives the White House an opportunity to shift the political debate away from Republicans’ focus on reducing the size of government, Johnson said.

“We need transparency and accountability in the financial sector… Elizabeth Warren is exactly the right person to lead this charge, in the first instance from the CFPB,” he wrote. “The fight for her confirmation would make her ideas clear to millions. Let’s see which senators exactly are willing to argue against greater transparency.” Johnson, a business professor at MIT and the IMF’s former chief economist, launched his blog two years ago at the height of the banking crisis to explain in consumer-friendly language what was happening to the global economy.

Fake comment letters sent to CFTC

A handful of forged comment letters are among the 150-plus letters and e-mails submitted to the Commodity futures Trading Commission in response to its proposed rule that would limit the ownership of banks in derivatives clearinghouses. The fake letters came from an H.J. Heinz Co. executive, a Burger King Co. franchise, and at least five other Arkansas-based officials or businesses, report Bloomberg's Silla Brush and Clea Benson.

A fake letter from Wayne Callahan, president of Heinz’s global Wal-Mart Stores Inc. business, urged the CFTC to set even tougher ownership rules. “It is likely that banks will try to exploit such a loophole to continue their cartel-like control of the derivatives market,” the letter said. A Heinz spokesman told Bloomberg that the letter used the name of a Heinz executive but was not sent by him. The CFTC, meanwhile, said it removed at least one of the letters and was checking the authenticity of others. The Dodd-Frank law requires the CFTC and the Securities and Exchange Commission to prepare a set of rules to regulate the vast $600 trillion derivatives market. However, the presumptive new Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Spencer Bachus, has been critical of derivatives regulation and is expected to scrutinize the CFTC and SEC actions early next year.

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