Trivia question: What is the greatest money mistake ever made? The not-so-trivial answer: Congress' no-strings-attached multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout of the nation's largest financial institutions -- with the emphasis being on no strings attached.
The bailout itself was a necessary effort to rescue the industry -- and the faltering economy -- by restoring credit liquidity. However, no sooner was the first half of the $700 billion doled out than reports surfaced that distressed banks' top executives were going on expensive junkets, flying around the country on corporate jets and handing out lucrative bonuses to themselves and their corporate cronies.
Despite the hammering Congress gave auto executives for their use of private jets, not a word of criticism was leveled at financial firms' CEOs for doing the same thing. Yet an Associated Press review of Security and Exchange Commission filings and Federal Aviation Administration records show that six financial companies that received billions in bailout dollars still maintain fleets of jets to fly executives not only on company business -- which in some instances might be justified as a money saver -- but also on personal and vacation trips, which in no way can be justified.
Such abuse of taxpayers' money is unconscionable. But now the story gets even worse.
Secrecy surrounds use of the aid money. When AP asked four questions of 21 banks that received at least $1 billion on how they were using taxpayers' money, not one could or would answer.
The questions were simple enough: How much of the money has been spent? What was it spent on? How much have you saved? And what's the plan for spending the rest? Many of the banks wouldn't even discuss these issues, while others stonewalled or gave meaningless answers.
Said Thomas Kelly, spokesman for J.P. Morgan & Co., recipient of $25 billion: "We've lent some of it. We've not lent some of it. We're not giving any accounting of 'Here's how we're doing it.'"
Not giving any accounting? The arrogance is appalling -- taking taxpayers' money and then refusing to be accountable for it.
Who are these guys accountable to, anyway?
Apparently no one, because in their haste, lawmakers made no accountability demands on the industry -- didn't even ask how the billions would be spent, although the banks knew they were ostensibly being given the money to provide credit liquidity, not to hoard it, buy other banks with it, or spend it on junkets.
Elizabeth Warren is Congress' watchdog overseeing banks' use of rescue money, but she has been given no clout to require answers or to enforce her will. She just seems to be there for show.
Yes, big banks' secrecy is inexcusable, but blame Congress for letting it happen. Private companies receiving taxpayer dollars cannot get out of line if Congress puts them on a short leash.
Handing out taxpayer dollars without demanding accountability must never be allowed to happen again.