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October 1, 2010

Inside "Right On The Edge"

Posted: 10:10 AM ET

By Scott Zamost
Senior Investigative Producer


(Programming note: "Right On The Edge" airs Saturday and Sunday at 8 and 11 p.m. ET).

It started with a tip about someone who was going undercover in Planned Parenthood clinics. She was about to release a new video showing what happened during that operation. Her name was Lila Rose, a 22-year-old anti-abortion activist. While she had made multiple appearances on Fox News the last several years, she had never been on CNN.

Around the same time, we learned that 21-year-old Hannah Giles, who posed as a prostitute to take down ACORN, would be speaking at a Tea Party rally in Searchlight, Nevada. Hannah also had never done an interview with CNN.

Two young activists. Both conservative and part of a growing movement that they say had been largely ignored by the mainstream media.

Investigative Correspondent Abbie Boudreau and I talked about the idea of following these young activists around. If we could gain their trust, it would be a fascinating story to follow for a documentary. It would not be easy.

Hannah was our first interview. Or at least we thought. I set it up through Levi Russell, a spokesman for the Tea Party Express. But the night before we were leaving for Nevada, Levi called with bad news. He said Hannah's attorney had cancelled the interview because of a pending lawsuit connected to one of the ACORN workers caught on hidden camera. I tried to explain our idea for the project to the attorney, but he would not change his mind.

However, when we got to Searchlight and met Hannah, she decided to do the interview anyway. Abbie asked her for the names of other young conservative activists. And then our project began.

We ended up following Lila Rose, Jason Mattera, Christian Hartsock and Ryan Sorba. Even though Abbie and I are investigative journalists, we kept telling them this documentary was not an investigation. We simply wanted to document their activism. But their distrust of mainstream media kept returning to nearly every conversation. At varying times, I thought the project was in jeopardy. Finally, I think they accepted that we would portray them fairly. But they were still skeptical.

During an interview outside a Planned Parenthood clinic that Lila and her team were protesting, she and I talked about the mainstream media.
"Some of the mainstream media has ignored our message, but some of it definitely has been covered," Lila told me.
"Would we be considered the mainstream media?" I asked.
"Yeah, you definitely would be," she said. "Well, a little bit fringed on the liberal side."

I assured her, as I had done over the past several months, that we weren’t taking sides. The documentary was to be a glimpse into a world we hadn't seen before - at least not in an in-depth way - and because of that, it was a story worth telling.

Filed under: Uncategorized


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September 29, 2010

Our Documentary Takes A Strange Detour

Posted: 07:46 AM ET

By Abbie Boudreau
CNN Investigative Correspondent

(Programming note: "Right On The Edge" airs this Saturday and Sunday at 8 and 11 p.m. ET).

I've been a reporter for nine years. My first official day on the job was on 9-11. I was the bureau chief in Dubuque, Iowa, working as a one-man band. I shot my own video, set up my own live shots, and edited my own stories. I would bring home the police scanner to make sure the nights were quiet in this modest town along the grand Mississippi River. Only one time, in my year and two months working there, did that scanner wake me up. (It would be the first murder story I covered. I remember being one of the first reporters to show up. The police were hosing down the blood off the sidewalk, and the bloody water washed over my shoes. It's something you don't forget.) Those days were long, and physical. I would go home and count the bruises on my legs and arms. There was nothing glamorous about this life. But that's what I liked about it. I was a reporter – and I was proud of that.

As a woman in the news industry you have to be tough. I have always had to work harder than my male counterparts to be taken seriously and to be treated with respect. As a woman in the news industry you have to ignore all of the silly talk from your managers about the clothes you should wear on-air or what color your hair should be. I have had my share of conversations like that, and to be honest, it stings. I'm left wondering, "When will my work stand on its own? Why does this always have to be part of the conversation?"

Recently, I was the target of a failed punk. James O'Keefe, the so-called "pimp" in the ACORN expose videos, was participating in a detailed plan to "faux" seduce me on his boat. For months, I had been working on a documentary about the young conservative movement. James had called me about concerns he had regarding an upcoming shoot. He asked me to meet him to talk about the shoot. I agreed to fly to Maryland and then drive to his "office" for a face-to-face conversation with him.

When I showed up, there was no office, as promised. Instead, he wanted to get me on a boat, which we later learned, was staged as a "pleasure palace." One of his colleagues, Izzy Santa, who was in Maryland that day, told me about the plan and stopped the punk before it happened.

Izzy told me he had "strawberries and champagne" waiting for me on the boat, and that he planned to "hit on me" the entire time. She said it would all be captured on hidden cameras that had been set up on the boat and in the back yard. She said the sole purpose of the "punk" was to embarrass me, and to make CNN look bad.

I would soon learn the details of the plan, in a 13-page document titled, "CNN Caper."

It explains the type of equipment needed to stage the boat for our meeting. Here is how the document reads:

Equipment needed

a. Video

1. hidden cams on the boat

2. tripod and overt recorder near the bed, an obvious sex tape machine

b. Props

1. condom jar

2. dildos

3. Music

a. Alicia keys

b. 80s romance songs, things that are typically James

c. avoid Marvin Gaye as too cliche

4. lube

5. ceiling mirror

6. posters and paintings of naked women

7. playboys and pornographic magazines

8. candles

9. Viagra and stamina pills

10. fuzzy handcuffs

11. blindfold

James was supposed to tape the following script before the meeting on the boat.

"My name is James, I work in video activism and journalism. I've been approached by CNN for an interview where I know what their angle is: they want to portray me and my friends as crazies, as non-journalists, as unprofessional and likely as homophobes, racists or bigots of some sort…"

"Instead, I've decided to have a little fun. Instead of giving her a serious interview, I'm going to punk CNN. Abbie has been trying to seduce me to use me, in order to spin a lie about me. So, I'm going to seduce her, on camera, to use her for a video. This bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who comes on at five will get a taste of her own medicine, she'll get seduced on camera and you'll get to see the awkwardness and the aftermath."

"Please sit back and enjoy the show."

It explains very simply what "the joke" is.

"The joke is that the tables have turned on CNN. Using hot blondes to seduce interviewees to get screwed on television, you are faux seducing her in order to screw her on television."

It goes on to explain how James should "adapt" to my mood on the boat.

"As the operation is going on, James will have to adapt and adjust to her mood and her reaction. If she is pulling away, withdraw and pull her back in. If she's unsure, comfort her and reassure her. Vacillate between somewhat serious interview and the come-hither persona as needed in order to confuse her judgment and also keep her on the boat."

James says that he wasn't really going to follow through with the plan. He e-mailed CNN this statement:

"That is not my work product. When it was sent to me, I immediately found certain elements highly objectionable and inappropriate, and did not consider them for one minute following it."

But that does not appear to be true, according to a series of emails we obtained from Izzy Santa, who says the e-mails reveal James' true intentions.

All of this is so disappointing. I never wanted to become a part of the story – especially under such strange circumstances.

I have worked so hard to have people pay attention to my work, and to be a respected journalist. I don't want to be judged based on anything other than my work. But apparently, I represent all of the things this group hates about the mainstream media. They feel because of the way I look that I do not matter, and that my reporting is a joke. They don't know anything about my work ethic – my history – my dedication and commitment – and my love for reporting. They just saw my blonde hair. And the ironic thing is that I'm really a brunette.

Filed under: Uncategorized


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August 13, 2010

Background checks for oil spill workers

Posted: 11:20 AM ET

Jackson County, Mississippi, Sheriff Mike Byrd told CNN he was shocked when he met with the local head of BP security as the company was cranking up beach clean-up operations. The sheriff was told BP wasn’t doing background checks on oil-spill clean-up workers.

"I said, 'You're kidding me,' Byrd recalls telling the BP official.

Now, Byrd says, that lack of screening has resulted in a convicted sex offender being charged with raping a co-worker.

A CNN investigation into the incident reveals a web of corporate finger-pointing after basic background checks were not done on those hired to remove oil from the beaches in and around Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Byrd said he told the BP official that "you're going to have every type of person coming in here looking for a job and you're going to have the criminal element in here and we're not going to know who we're dealing with if we don't do background checks on these people."

Byrd believes if a simple background check had been done, the alleged rape could have been prevented. Charles Rundy Robertson, the man charged in the case, had failed to register as a sex offender. He was also on probation for a felony. Yet, because no background checks were done, he was hired as a supervisor.

In a statement to CNN, BP spokesman Robert Wine said, "BP does conduct full checks on its employees, and under normal business conditions can make it a part of the contract for full backgrounds to be conducted by our long-term contractors. This was not done for all contractors in this response; the responsibility lies with the employing company for their own staff.”

The company that hired workers for BP’s clean-up efforts was Aerotek. We spoke with the general counsel for Aerotek who told us, “We are not liable for anything that happens. Once we deliver the people to be supervised by our client, we don't have anything to do with them anymore."

Sheriff Mike Byrd said he asked BP’s local head of security why no background checks were being performed, and his response was, “…there’s so many of them [employees], we were told to do drug screens and that was it.”

Do you think more should have been done to prevent criminals from being hired for BP’s clean-up operation along the Gulf Coast? Also, Sheriff Byrd told CNN, he would have done the background checks for free. So, why do you think the companies involved still refused to have the checks performed?

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Uncategorized


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July 15, 2010

Who is delivering the mail?

Posted: 02:02 PM ET

Just this week, the Government Accountability Office released a report about thousands of registered sex offenders receiving U.S. passports. The report stated that many of the offenders would subsequently use their legally obtained passport to travel to foreign countries known for sex tourism.

The report detailed 30 case studies involving registered sex offenders who were issued passports by the State Department during fiscal year 2008. The State Department says there are no laws that allow it to deny issuing passports to registered sex offenders, and that it “rigorously adheres” to following the law.

One of the cases in the report involved a U.S. Postal Service employee.

Here’s what the report stated:

“A U.S. Postal Service carrier was convicted of indecency with a girl, including sexual contact. The Postal Service was aware of the conviction and the offender is still employed as a postal carrier. The assigned route for the postal carrier goes through a residential area that includes an elementary school.”

Last December, the Postal Service announced it would begin a program to compare its lists of employees to the national sex offender database. Earlier this year, a postal carrier in California was reassigned to a job where he does not interact with the public after it was discovered he was a registered sex offender.

A Postal Service spokesman says the carrier mentioned in the GAO report has since resigned. As for the program, postal employees have 10 days after finding out they’re on a sex offender registry to inform the Postal Service. The agency is still in the process of compiling data about the number of sex offenders working there.

Do you think registered sex offenders should be allowed to deliver mail in residential neighborhoods?

Filed under: Uncategorized


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July 12, 2010

ATF Chief Takes Aim At Retaliation Claims

Posted: 10:11 AM ET

By Scott Zamost
Senior Investigative Producer

For months, we investigated claims that ATF agents were the victims of retaliation for speaking up about alleged abuses in the agency. Filing a complaint got you ostracized, agents told us.

Before our investigation, "ATF Under Fire" aired in May, the deputy director, Kenneth Melson, pledged to take any kind of alleged retaliation seriously, saying he would not tolerate it while he was in charge.

In the interview with Investigative Correspondent Abbie Boudreau, he was clear: "And if there's somebody that's afraid that they're going to be retaliated against if they file or they complain about fraud, waste, abuse or illegal conduct they can come and talk to me about it and I'll make sure that not only will the investigation be conducted, but they won't be retaliated against.”

Days before the story aired, Melson held his first webcast and told employees what he had promised to CNN: “I will not condone, or allow acts of retaliation by management for suggestions made by employees, expressions of concern, reports of misconduct – that’s not going to happen on my watch.”

And he's followed up with a subsequent webcast in which he said, "One of the things we've done recently is to talk to Internal Affairs because I know there have been some concerns about what has happened to complaints to Internal Affairs about things that they've seen going on in ATF. They are now going to make sure that every time they receive a complaint from anyone in ATF that they acknowledge the receipt of that complaint so you know it hasn't gone into a black hole."

Melson also acknowledged that communication with the department that handles discrimination complaints "can be improved." He said “so when someone files a complaint they will be notified and communicated with on a periodic basis so they know what (their) status is, what they can expect to happen in the next stage of their process."

After meeting with representatives of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, he said "we all were in agreement on what some of the concerns were and we expressed to them many of the things that we're doing in order to address those concerns."

Agents tell me that Melson is taking a proactive stance to address what they claim has been a culture of retaliation within ATF. They say the next several months will be critical to how this all plays out.

Vince Cefalu, the agent we profiled in our story who says he was retaliated against for speaking up, is optimistic. As he writes on the cleanuatf.org website, "There are many and multiple accounts around the country that suggest Mr. Melson is a man of his word and suggest the matter discussed on (cleanupatf.org) and in person with Mr. Melson are receiving review."

Filed under: Uncategorized


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May 26, 2010

Bureaucrats and Bullies

Posted: 04:52 PM ET

It seems like every time we turn around there’s another report about a student being bullied at school. You’d think when a bully gets older, that kind of behavior would somehow go away. But maybe it doesn’t.

abbie

Recently, I interviewed a special agent with ATF. He’s been at the agency for nearly 24 years. Most of his time there was spent going undercover. He’s worked on cases involving white supremacist groups and the Hell’s Angels and murder for hire. If anyone were capable of intimidating someone or being a bully, I would think it would be him. But he told me he feels that he is the one being bullied by “bureaucrats” at ATF.

Vince Cefalu has filed a bunch of complaints dating back to 2006. But he says the one that really got him in trouble was his whistleblower complaint.

Cefalu says he was working in the property department and noticed there was missing equipment. He says he told his superiors about his discovery and they told him to “shut up.” He reported his findings anyway, and he said that is when the retaliation and bullying really began. He became an outcast. He says he was given a desk job, with no real responsibilities. All he does is sit there for eight hours, and then leaves. He says he considers this kind of work, the worst kind of punishment, and feels managers at ATF are trying to bully him into leaving the agency. It hasn’t worked yet.

Kenneth Melson, who runs ATF as deputy director, told me there hasn’t been retaliation since he took over last year. He says he will not tolerate reprisals against employees.

I’m interested in hearing more about adult bullies. Have you ever encountered a bully at work? If so, what happened? Has anyone ever tried to bully you into quitting your job? Do you know of other federal agencies where employees feel bullying and retaliation is a part of the operation?

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Special Investigations Unit • Uncategorized


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June 9, 2009

The Unabomber Auction

Posted: 05:52 PM ET

Convicted "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, who terrorized the country with a series of mail bombs over nearly two decades, is fighting to stop a public auction of his diaries and other personal possessions. But Kaczynski's five-year legal battle will come to an end soon unless he can convince the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

The property that is up for auction includes tools, typewriters, knives and a hatchet; Kaczynski's degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan; and the glasses and hooded jacket made famous by an artist's rendering of the suspect. But experts say the most valuable items probably will be the 40,000 pages of Kaczynski's diaries and other writings.

The only way that the Unabomber victims are going to receive any sort of restitution from Ted Kaczynski is if the government auctions off his personal belongings. At this point, Kaczynski owes four victims $15 million.

What do you think? Should the Unabomber’s possessions be auctioned off? If so, would you ever want to buy any of these items? And if your answer is yes – how much would you be willing to spend?

Watch Abbie Boudreau’s video blog and let us know what you think.

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Special Investigations Unit • Uncategorized


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February 23, 2009

Journey for Change: March

Posted: 11:20 AM ET
Editor’s Note: Thirty kids, ages 12 to 16, from Bushwick, Brooklyn, were chosen to participate in "Journey for Change," a youth empowerment program created by Malaak Compton-Rock. In early August the group traveled to South Africa with Compton-Rock and CNN Anchor Soledad O’Brien. Since returning to the U.S., they’ve been hosting fundraisers and doing community service projects as "Global Ambassadors" for "Journey for Change."  In March, Compton-Rock took the group to see the Oscar winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. She also asked the kids to blog about where they see themselves in the future. In July, the group’s journey will be featured in Black in America 2, a CNN Presents documentary hosted by Soledad O’Brien.

Journey for Change team, August 2008 in South Africa

Five years from now I will be 18 heading on to college. What my plan is to do is to finish up junior high, reach my goal of going to Townsend Harris High School or to Stuyvesant High School. Then I want to go to Temple University or even better. With participating in this program and excelling in school I want to reach my dreams and even go beyond. I know I could do it but it requires a bunch of hard effort from my self and sacrificing time for studying. If God sends me a message that I will make it, I will be willing to do it to pursue my dreams. After college I want to work in the medical field or in the law field and actually have a passion for it.

-Sydney Smart, 13

In five years I see myself in a specialized high school. Not just any specialized high school, but an engineering high school. I am also going to have very high grades and keep them up. I also see myself with a crazy, hot, cherry red car. In ten years I see myself in college with a beautiful girlfriend and a good education. I also see Malaak writing me a recommendation to get into the college. I would tell you what two schools I'm going to attend, but I'm not sure yet.

-Albert Brunn III, 12

In five years I see myself graduating from Clara Barton High School with a GPA of 90 and above. Then I see myself going to college to be a Registered Nurse. The colleges that I would like to attend are Spellman, Farmingdale, Harvard, Howard and Hunter College. This means that I have to work very hard and stay on task. After I graduate college with a nursing degree, I will get a job working in a hospital and in my spare time I will volunteer at the Salvation Army.
In ten years I see myself moving up in the medical field, and being a mentor to the upcoming Journey for Change kids. I will speak out to the community about the importance of staying in school and achieving your goals because knowledge is the key part of life and without knowledge you have nothing. I will help to guide them in being respectful and generous to everyone.

-Jenee Lawson, 15

I will be in college in five years studying culinary arts and business. In ten years, I will be running my own restaurant and starting a family hopefully living in the suburbs. I want four kids and to travel the world. I want to take my family to Hawaii. I will do an open kitchen at my restaurant every Friday night and people who are hungry can come and eat.

-Wayne Phillips, 15

In five years I will be a junior in college majoring in pre-law. I will be playing college ball and hanging out with my future girlfriend. I will volunteer at the Salvation Army in my spare time. And I will come back to Brooklyn to say hi and check on everyone. In ten years, I will be playing in the NBA, married with kids and living a low-key life. I will teach my kids not to make the same mistakes that I have. I want a close family.

-Jeremy Baker, 15

Five years from now I will be 20 years old and half way through college. I would love to go to Howard University so I am working hard to bring my grades up. I enjoy traveling and volunteering so I will probably continue to travel across the nation and internationally in service for others. I don't think I will ever stop volunteering my time, talents and service for others. Who knows I may become an activist for human rights, especially after seeing Slumdog Millionaire!

-Joshua Hall, 15

In five years I will have graduated from college and will be working as a fashion stylist. I will still volunteer giving my time to people who need it. In ten years, I will be living in Los Angeles, CA, married with kids, and working on great projects.

-Yolaine Calixte, 17

Omg!!! Slumdog Millionaire was an amazing movie. I loved it. I didn't know that the poverty was so bad in India. It's amazing what you can learn from a movie huh!? I was amazed at how all those children who played slumdogs in the movie were actually slumdogs. Like after the movie you would think they would have all the fame right in hotels and stuff. No, they're back in the slums. The way those children are treated! They do not deserve to be treated in this matter. It was very devastating to watch this movie because of everything that was happening. This is an amazing movie if you haven't seen this movie I don't know what you are waiting for because this movie is breathtakingly outstanding.

Love ~N~ Peace

-Mariah C. Ralph, 13

Slumdog Millionaire was sad because I started to feel their pain and put myself in their shoes. I cried. I was able to see how people live and it made me appreciative and thankful. Though the brother treated his brother wrong, he died for him so he could be with the girl he wanted.

-Sadara Lewis, 13

Slumdog Millionaire was inspiring because the main character was eager and anxious to find the girl that he loved. He stayed true to her and did not deviate from his mission until he saved her. I found the poverty very similar to South Africa, but the bathroom situation was different because they had to pay to use the toilets in the Mumbai slums.

-Donovan Rodgers, 14

Slumdog Millionaire was interesting because it had a lot of ups and downs. The two boys were together their whole life and saw a lot of things. And then one was in love and never stopped thinking of the girl. The poverty was really bad and striking and shocking. It was similar in South Africa but I think it was even worse, which is really bad.

-Jonathan Severe, 14

I thought Slumdog Millionaire was a good movie because it taught a lesson about being grateful for what you have because in other countries they don't have anything. I liked when the flashbacks happened so we were able to see the past. The main character didn't forget anything. We should be helping more countries with their poverty.

-Laura DiFilippi, 13

Filed under: BIA2 • Journey for Change • Soledad OBrien • Uncategorized


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February 18, 2009

Former Marine facing foreclosure, but do you really want to bail him out?

Posted: 06:38 PM ET

pv_16959_00471Jeff Gray is a nice guy.  He's a 45 year old father of three, a husband to a school teacher and a former Marine.  He is also self-admittedly financially inept and very-near being kicked out of his suburban Maryland home.  He is literally begging for help not to be foreclosed on.  But when you hear his short financial history,  you may come to the same conclusion that J.P. Morgan Chase has come to: Jeff Gray can not keep his home.

I sat in his living room a few weeks back and went through his mortgage papers and could not believe what I was reading.  In 2005,  Jeff Gray filed a tax return indicating he and his wife had a combined income of $7,900 a year.  In December of that same year the couple refinanced their three bedroom home for $347,000.  It would take four months of his salary to pay for just one month of his mortgage.

When I asked him how anyone ever approved this loan,   he told me to look at the loan papers that he says were filled out by a fast talking mortgage broker.  The loan form indicated Jeff and his wife were making more than $13,000 a month!

"Wait a minute",  jeff1I said  "Your income was 7-thousand-900 a year and they inflated it on the paperwork to $13,000-a-month, and somehow they loaned you 347 thousand?"
"Yep."
"Jeff,  I have to ask you did that make sense to you at the time?"
"Well Drew,  when I went back and looked at it,  like I said we were signing deeds we were getting them real fast,  and we didn't know.  We didn't pay any attention to it."
Jeff Gray has not made a mortgage payment, he says, in four years.  He has been living rent free, unable to pay that $2,700-a-month for even one month. Now he wants help.
There are a lot of reasons we have gotten into this housing mess.  Whomever it was who wrote this loan, approved this loan and sold this loan should, in my view, be held responsible for it.  But that also includes the person who applied for the loan, signed for the loan and then couldn't pay the loan.
Jeff Gray told me he feels he was swindled, caught up in a swirl of paper work flying at him at closing.  And it is true he is being kicked out while the banks are being bailed out. But there is no fine print about the loan papers I saw. They clearly stated his first mortgage payment would be $2,700 dollars and he knew he couldn't afford it.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Uncategorized


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January 16, 2009

Madoff Red Flags?

Posted: 02:32 PM ET

Slowly but surely more information is coming out in the Bernard Madoff case. One of the big questions remains: With this being one of the largest alleged Ponzi schemes in history, is it really possible that Madoff acted alone? Or were others involved in the scam?

abbie

Industry insiders have told me they question whether regulators were either not sophisticated and experienced enough to uncover a massive fraud, or whether there was someone on the inside purposely looking the other way.

This week, Congressman Paul Kanjorski (D-PA), the chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee who is investigating the Madoff case, released a statement that suggests more red flags than originally thought were missed by federal regulators in this case.

He points to the 2007 audit report of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. He says it contains obvious warning signs that should have alerted the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Kanjorski says the audit report did not include basic information such as an income statement, an accounting of how money was managed, or even a statement of cash flows. Click here to read Congressman Kanjorski’s statement to S.E.C. Chairman Christopher Cox.

Essentially, it was a report with a bunch of boxes checked, without information attached. (Or maybe the information was attached, but it has somehow gone missing.)

Kanjorski also raises questions into the S.E.C's inspection policies as they relate to internal controls for broker-dealers and their auditors. Kanjorski says a "competent" auditor would have likely spotted the alleged scam much earlier.

So, once again, the big question: Was it a lack of “competency” or did qualified people simply choose to trust Madoff and look the other way?

Take a look at the audit report yourself – it’s only eight pages. Does anything stand out to you? Do you agree with Kanjorski that the report should have raised red flags within the S.E.C. about Madoff’s operations? Click here to read the 2007 audit report of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities.

Filed under: Uncategorized


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