Saint Warren’s dark side: Ugliness the media overlook

Posted by on Feb 01, 2012 at 10:42 am

Now, Buffett’s hypocrisy on taxes is well known to readers of these pages: He decries the fact that rich investors like him get taxed mainly at the lower capital-gains rate of 15 percent. Yet he made his vast fortune enjoying that favorable treatment, and largely kept his mouth shut until now, as he nears the end of his long career. Plus, he plans to use a charitable trust to further shield much of his income from taxes.

Much less has been said about Buffett’s unsaintly investment record. I won’t bore you with every gory detail of his questionable associations, which include no-lose investments in Goldman Sachs and General Electric just before the companies received massive federal aid during the financial crisis.

But other items really take the shine off St. Warren’s halo — like his insistence that the ratings agencies didn’t play a key role in setting up the 2008 financial meltdown.

In fact, the ratings biz was rife with conflicts of interest, since the agencies were paid by the same entities they were rating. Most people figure that’s why these “watchdogs” ignored major signs of trouble in the housing markets as they slapped all those Triple-A ratings on the toxic housing-related debt that was at the heart of the financial crisis.

But Buffett has publicly defended the rating agencies as bit players in the debacle, caught up in the mania much like nearly everyone else. His obvious motive: He held a major stake in rating agency Moody’s Investors Service, so Berkshire got a nice cut out of all those fees that Moody’s “earned” as it fueled the crisis.

It’s hard to believe a conservative businessman would be able to get away with that hypocrisy — not to mention the association with a business that helped do so much damage to the US economy.

It’s also hard to believe that any conservative businessman who was just interviewed by the Securities and Exchange Commission over some corporate sleaze would be getting invitations to the White House, much less be touted at the State of the Union Address.

The SEC interviewed Buffett last year over one of the most sordid corporate affairs I’ve seen in a long time: His longtime aide and one-time heir-apparent bought shares in a company called Lubrizol just before Buffett purchased the outfit.

The executive, David Sokol, made a hefty profit from the purchase, and even advised Buffett to buy the company in the first place.

Insider trading? I can’t say if it was outside the law. But the SEC is looking into the matter. (SEC and Sokol spokesmen declined to comment on the probe’s status; Buffett didn’t return repeated calls seeking comment.)

Yet I don’t recall any major media outfit bringing up the sordid affair while Buffett was lecturing the nation on tax fairness. Nor did any jump on Buffett’s bizarre initial reaction as Sokol was resigning from Berkshire last year: He defended Sokol’s actions — which, even if they weren’t illegal, still smack of the kind of corporate favoritism that Obama and the rest of the left continually denounce.

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