UPDATE, May 2: ABC’s Political Punch reports that the administration is denying making threats. Uh-huh, Tom Lauria just made it up. My take: Horse manure.
If the Bush White House had engaged in anything similar to what's being described here (actually, Hank Paulson did; the question is how much Bush knew), there would be calls for impeachment.
Maybe there should be similar talk now. As it is, the establishment media will more than likely work very hard to ignore this.
It should not be ignored. What attorney Tom Lauria describes is nothing short of chilling.
What follows is a rush transcription, omitting the intro and wrap-up niceties, of an interview today between WJR's Frank Beckmann and Tom Lauria, attorney for most of (at the moment) Chrysler's non-TARP creditors (audio is here; NYT link in transcript added by me):
Beckmann: So what's the matter with your vulture clients who are so greedy and selfish. Why won't they go along with this?
Lauria: Well, they bought a contract that says that they get paid before anyone else does by Chrysler. And they have been told by the government who is in complete control of Chrysler, oddly enough, that despite their contractual right, they do not get paid before everyone else.
So they are standing on their rights, standing on the law, trying to defend in effect what is the Constitution of the United States, to make sure that they get what they're entitled to for their investors.
Beckmann: Tom, let me make the argument against you in another way. We've heard the President say this, "I wouldn't want to stand on their side." Ron Gettelfinger says "Everyone else has made concessions. These people won't; they're greedy." Why not take a concession that is being asked of everybody else and is being accepted by everybody else, including other hedge funds that had bought some of these bonds in Chrysler?
Lauria: Well that's a great question, because let me tell you it's no fund standing on this side of the fence opposing the President of the United States. In fact, let me just say, people have asked me who I represent, and that's a moving target.
I can tell you for sure that I represent one less investor today than I represented yesterday. One of my clients was directly threatened by the White House, and in essence compelled to withdraw its opposition to the deal under threat that the full force of the White House press corps would destroy its reputation if it continued to fight. That's how hard it is to stand on this side of the fence.
Beckmann: Was that Perella Weinberg?
Lauria: That was Perella Weinberg.
Beckmann: All right.
Lauria: Now let me just tell you, to be clear, that we do not oppose the rehabilitation of Chrysler. We think it is vitally important that a company like Chrysler be protected to the extent that it can be within the framework of the law. I want to also say that we do not oppose the government backstopping or supporting the pensioneers and retirees and workers of Chrysler.
I actually think that in a troubled economic time like we're in, that is an appropriate role for the government to perform. What we do oppose, however, is the abuse of the bankruptcy law to coerce first-lien lenders subsidize the rehabilitation of Chrysler or the backstop of the obligations to the pensioneers and retirees beyond what they will do voluntarily.
And just to be clear, these clients of mine have agreed to compromise 50% of their first-lien position to help support the rehabilitation of Chrysler -- Contrary to what the President said yesterday in his new conference that "these people will not give to support the effort," they have agreed to compromise 50% of what they're owed to support the rehabilitation of Chrysler, despite the fact that they're under no obligation whatsoever to do so.
That is what we stand for, and that is what we're going to go to court to fight for.
Beckmann: OK, so they have offered to take 50 cents on the dollar. What are they being offered in return, and how does that compare to what other stakeholders, say the UAW, are going to be receiving?
Lauria: Here's the troubling circumstance here. My clients bought a position in the Chrysler capital structure that entitles them to be paid "first dollars out." That is, they're to be paid 100 cents of what they're owed before any junior creditors get a penny.
The government has offerend them 29 cents on the dollar, in the context of a restructuring of Chrysler that will send over $10 billion of value to junior claims. And when I say $10 (billion), that's a floor. As we're continuing to review the papers that Chrysler has filed in the bankruptcy court, that number may actually be more like $20 billion. So in other words, my clients, who are contractually entitled to 100 cents on the dollar, are being asked to take 29 cents on the dollar, while junior creditors are being offered somewhere between $10-$20 billion of value in the Chrysler rehabilitation.
Now I ask your listeners, what would they do if they were in our position?
Beckmann: Now Tom Lauria, let me cite a New York Times piece, I believe this was yesterday's New York Times. No, it's today's as a matter of fact. And it says about the creditors who are standing firm: "Many of them bought Chrysler debt for about 30 cents on the dollar." So what they're saying is, "Look, they got a discount to begin with. They're getting a good deal here. If they bought it for 30 and they're being offered 29, that's a great deal, better percentagewise than anybody else got."
Lauria: Well, what people need to understand, first of all, that that is only speculation. There are people who bought this debt at par in my group, there are people who bought this at 70 cents, there are people who bought it at other prices. But what people really need to understand is that the people who bought this debt are pensioneers, teachers' credit unions, personal retiree accounts, retirement plans, college endowments. That's who my clients act as fiduciaries for. And they make all kinds of investments. And as you can imagine in this economy, there are numerous of those investments that have gone bad.
This was an investment that people made based on their assessment of the assets of Chrysler, and the view that this was a very secure, very safe investment. And they bought a contract that said they would get a very low rate of return in exchange for that high level of security. So the argument about what they paid for their investment really is irrelevant.
The fact of the matter is they bought a contract that said "you're first in line, and in exchange for that you're going to get a very low rate of return." And I think everybody in this country should be concerned about the fact that the President of the United States, the executive office, is using its power to try to abrogate that contractual right. If the President will attack that contractual right, what right will it not attack?
Beckmann: You made a comment to me before we went on the air about the significance of this case as it relates to the Constitution. I'd like you to explain that to my audience.
Lauria: Well, look, there are kind of two aspects to that. The first is the right to property and the right to contract are kind of sacronsanct in this country. I think everybody understands that when you make a deal it's supposed to be honored, and if it's not honored you're supposed to be able to get protection in court. And what is happening here, through the force of the United States government, and that's what's disturbing about this -- I mean, private parties have contract disputes all the time -- but for the United States Government to step in, the Executive Office of the United States Government, who under the Constitution is charged with enforcing the laws to step in and try to in effect break the laws, I think we should all be concerned about that. That is a constitutional issue.
OK, number one. Number two, realize that our Constitution is premised on the notion that there is a balance between the three branches of government: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.
And what's going to be happening, in fact I'm going to have to go here, because I'm heading down to the bankruptcy court to start taking on this battle, which is of epic proportions. But what is going on here is you've got the executive branch coming into the judicial branch. And I think it is really important for the Constitution of the United States that people understand that the judicial branch can stand independent and interpret and apply the laws as it's required to do under the Constitution in the face of intense pressure from the Executive branch to do otherwise.
Beckmann: Tom Lauria, really appreciate it. Final question, will Oppenheimer Funds and Stairway Capital, your other two clients in this, are they committed to standing firm? I've got to believe they're facing the same pressure Perella Weinberg did before it changed its mind and said "Okay, we'll go along now."
Lauria: Well they are today, but the Executive Office hasn't called them yet and made threats to them. So, maybe by tomorrow I won't have any clients, and maybe this fight will be over.
Isn't stealing $10-$20 billion under threat of ruin a "high crime"?
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.