In a Manhattan conference room with floor-to-ceiling windows and a mahogany power table, the brain trust of the US Attorney’s Office SDNY planned their next move. Their boss, Richard Gaines, provided the inspiration.
“Oh for fifteen,” he said. “Not a great start.” He paced the front of the room, shirt cuffs rolled up. Martha sipped at a mug of chai. She knew what was coming; they’d rehearsed it. “It looks bad,” Gaines said. “It feels worse.” A dozen people around the table. “When someone can make a fortune behaving badly, get caught, and emerge on the other end unscathed, then our justice system is broken.” Martha read the faces around her, a mix of determination and discouragement. She steeled her stomach. Beamed her confidence to the room. Gaines continued.
“The world economy was brought to its knees because of practices accepted in and endorsed by American banking. And we’re supposed to believe no one did anything wrong. No one goes to prison. It’s offensive.” The thing about Gaines at his best, Martha thought, was he meant it. The more animated he got, the deeper the lines in his forehead. She felt the emotional temperature of the room rise.
“We deserve better,” Gaines said. “The American public deserves better.” He stopped pacing. Nodded to Martha. Her turn.
She leaned forward. “Our approach has failed,” she said. “We’ve gotten our asses kicked.” She scanned the room as she talked, locked eyes with every face. “We can either give up on individuals and chase corporate fines, or we can go at them harder. More aggressive.”
Gaines picked it back up without missing a beat. “Maybe,” he said, “a little less cocky.” A hint of a self-deprecating smile. “You’ve all worked like hell, and we have nothing to show for it.” He waved a hand in the air. “I’d understand if you want to be done.” No he wouldn’t. He was working them, he and Martha both, and she loved him for it. This was the moment, the reason she got into this. Finally, the will—and the power—to make something right.
“But you have to choose,” Gaines said. “It will take all of us at our absolute best. Other things will get left undone.” He polled the room. “So what’ll it be? Go harder, or go at the wallets?” He started with Martha. His pit bull. His crusader. Like they planned. Knowing no one would be able to back down in the face of her fire. They were a team, she and Gaines. They were going to do this.
As she opened her mouth to answer, she heard her father’s voice in the back of her head. Don’t believe it. He’ll let you down. Martha smiled. On the verge of vindication.
“Go harder,” she said, power-voiced. “Everything we’ve got.”
It was unanimous.
Over the next two months, they investigated more than 100 individuals from 29 firms. Search warrants. Wiretaps. FBI raids to seize records. They weeded out the weak cases, then those that were anything short of unassailable. Martha and Gaines poked holes until there weren’t any. In the end, they went forward with three cases. Filed Martha’s first, in October. Securities fraud against the former CEO of a failed mortgage giant, whose own net worth ballooned while investors lost $1.6 billion when the company’s securities, created explicitly to package and hide bad debt, collapsed. The case was rock solid, Martha almost giddy. They couldn’t lose.
The Sunday Shows
Martha just back from the gym, fleece-bundled. Appeased. She’s done crunches. Elliptical. Interval training. Two hours a day lets her sleep, keeps her from thinking too much. Quells the itch to always do.
Robert Junior at the kitchen sink, dish towel over his shoulder, elbow-deep in suds. He doesn’t hear her come in. She watches him clean a whisk, a spatula. He’s so private. Gentle. His presence so delicate it can go unnoticed. He inspects a French press, sliding the plunger up and down. Sees her reflection in the window. Turns and smiles. “It’s all so amazing.” He holds up the glass unit. “Simple. Beautiful.” He pulls out the plunger and sinks it into the soapy water. “How’d it go?”
Martha shakes her head.
“I’m sorry about all this with your father.”
She looks at him. “I could say the same to you.” She gets a sad smile. “Where is he?”
Junior nods toward the front room. “Sunday shows.”
Martha finds Robert Senior with a glass of milk in one hand, remote control in the other, political talk shows on the television, and a satisfied smile on his face.
“Spirited debate, broadcast to the nation.” He sips his milk. “With this, I could have changed the world.” On the television, the right-wing host parries with two opposing political consultants about congressional malfeasance.
“That’s not debate,” Martha leans against the door frame, arms folded. “It’s sport. Entertainment over weekend breakfast.”
Senior only half hearing her. Eyes riveted to the set. He drains his glass. He gestures toward the TV, remote in hand. “They’re discussing whether a Congressman perjured himself. What could be more serious?”
“Give it a minute,” Martha says. From the kitchen, Junior’s voice hums a melancholy tune. She nods toward the televised pundits. “They used to be married,” she says. “On another channel there’s a failed presidential candidate arguing with his rival’s former speechwriter; afterward they’ll go out for drinks and compare notes on their next consulting gigs. On another there’s a host whose only talent is provocation baiting a Senator into losing his temper, when neither cares about the ostensible issue. The one concerned only with TV ratings, the other with public approval ratings.” A clatter of pans. “They don’t even listen to each other.”
“No,” Martha says, gesturing at the screen. “That’s cynical.”
Senior’s eyes get small. He hoists the remote toward Martha. “Which button makes them quiet?”
She shows him. He mutes the set.
“Dismissal is easy.” He smells of caraway and damp earth. He wears a white shirt buttoned to the top. “Cynicism is a means by which we rationalize looking the other way. It’s a tool the powerful have always counted on to undermine the possibility of reform.”
Martha’s eyes move to the silent screen, where the male pundit, red-faced, wags his finger at the female pundit. The host to the right, looking smug. “Here you go,” she says. “Turn it up.”
“Tamara, you’re a shill for the left who routinely excuses away criminal behavior. You’re telling me—”
“I’m telling you to get your finger out of my face.”
“Get YOUR finger out of MY face. This congressman lied under oath. At best, he’s the piano player in a whorehouse claiming to not know what’s happening on the second floor. At worst, he’s a serial liar.”
Robert Junior pokes his head in, dish towel on his shoulder. His fingers go to the scar on his left temple. He looks from the television to Martha to his father, turns back to the kitchen.
“Why are you so angry?”
“Because I’m sitting next to a moron.” (Tamara looks down at the table) “What, are you going to cry?”
Martha crosses the room and turns off the set. “Satisfied?”
“So join them. Raise the level of debate.”
“Been there. Done that.”
Martha, with clenched fists, stands behind Gaines at a podium. They face assembled reporters on the plaza in front of 500 Pearl Street, April 2010.
She had visualized this moment for months, prepared herself to fully savor the victory. Now the scene was set. Full media. Perfect spring day. But Martha’s stomach burned. She hadn’t slept in 48 hours, hadn’t eaten since the day before, when she learned of Gaines’ betrayal. The ground beneath her feet no longer solid. She couldn’t believe he’d done it. Couldn’t look at Gaines or his declaration-of-victory mask. Couldn’t look at the reporters, to whom she was expected to lie momentarily. To feign celebration. What she did do was look at the smattering of protesters. A man dressed as Uncle Sam held a pole with a sign attached, red letters outlined in blue: Save Me From Myself. Flannel-shirted students skipping Columbia classes. Okay, looking at the protesters was a mistake. But it wasn’t the students chanting clever slogans that got to her. Not the beaded and knit cap-adorned neo-hippie girl tirelessly holding her sign at full extension—Capitalism Is Organized Crime—a sentiment with which Martha did not disagree. As principled as they thought they were, they were mostly trying on an identity, these kids. Making a fashion statement. They weren’t the ones who turned her already toxic stomach upside-down. It was the silver-haired guy in work cap and sunglasses, face deeply lined, jaw set. The weary-eyed woman in a Talbot’s suit who left work to stand on this spot and hear an accounting. To find out why, and who would answer for this.
Look them in the eyes, her father used to say after yet another crusade failed to bring change for workers. Safer conditions. Overtime pay. After he had gone to the courthouse and the state house to stare down bosses and the elected officials who had vowed to do the right thing. You show up if for no other reason than to look the liars in the eyes and let them know you see them. That they failed you, and that if they tell you anything else, it’s bullshit.
The Talbot-suited woman looked Martha in the eyes as Gaines approached the microphone.
Thirty days before, Gaines’ office, Martha had stood before him, looking him in the eyes and thrusting a copy of a letter in his face. “Tell me this isn’t happening,” she’d said. “Tell me I have nothing to worry about.” Gaines looked at the letter, not at Martha, a point she failed to register at the time. “You have nothing to worry about,” he said. The letter, sent to Gaines from defense counsel and cc-ing Martha, asked for a meeting with Gaines to talk settlement and “avoid the mess of a trial.” She looked into the eyes that wouldn’t quite meet hers and said, “Tell me you’re not taking his money, netting contributions to some future campaign.” Then he looked at her. “Martha, take a breath. Nothing has changed. Go do your job. Let me do mine.”
She did. She believed. She nailed her case. And then, yesterday, three days before opening arguments were to begin, Gaines called a press conference to announce a settlement. The company would pay fines, the CEO would walk. Gaines hadn’t had the decency to tell her; she got the group email.
Now, Gaines at the microphone.
Her stomach a hazardous waste site. She could hardly hear him. “The company has agreed to pay sixty-seven million dollars in fines on behalf of its former CEO. An unprecedented number.”
The Talbot-suited woman’s eyes bored holes into Martha. As nauseated as Gaines’ voice made her, she wanted him to keep talking because, when he finished, she’d have to say something.
“Our office is proud of this result,” Gaines said. “It is extremely complicated to make criminal cases in corporate fraud.” She couldn’t look at him. Couldn’t stop wondering what promises had been made. What he’d sold them out for. Red lights glowed as cameras recorded his empty words. Even the protesters had stopped to listen. “This case represents a landmark victory for the people.”
Martha’s shoulder twitched. It took her a moment to realize Gaines had finished, left her the podium. She approached, automatic. Arms stiff at her sides. She stared at the bank of microphones. Ran through in her head what she should say. What she’d like to say. Couldn’t bring herself to do either one. The microphones loomed. Stark, insistent. She took a deep breath. Then, her father’s daughter, she forced herself to look out at the assembled reporters. The protesters. To meet their eyes. She couldn’t find the Talbot-suited woman, thought she had left, thought maybe that would allow Martha to speak, but then a flash—a glint of sunlight off a camera—caught her eye, and when it faded, there stood the woman, weary eyes locked, arms folded, waiting. The microphones before Martha like cancerous growths. She walked away from the podium without saying a word.
11:07 am. Her career was pronounced dead of natural causes. She turned in her resignation the next morning.
Martha gets an appointment with Judge Haney, who treats her with professional courtesy. They sit in brown leather chairs in his study. Afternoon sun warms the room at the end of a rare clear day in a cold, wet fall. Judge Haney drinks iced coffee, and has poured some for Martha.
“How can I help you?” He offers sugar from a ceramic bowl. He’s a big man, linebacker-sized, but his movements are graceful, almost elegant.
“Release my father’s ashes. All due respect, judge. This claim is a farce.” Martha sips coffee. It’s good—strong—and she says so. The judge nods acknowledgement.
“Mr. Prager claims to have native blood,” he says, “and that the remains purported to be your father’s are actually those of a Seneca ancestor, illegally burned and buried.”
She can still see in him the school boy who excelled by doing every assignment exactly as asked.
“I heard that in court.”
“If it’s true, and we failed to return them, we’d be in violation of Federal law.”
“I understand. But you and I both know his claim is bullshit. Your Honor.” Martha works to keep her tone even. There are sensitivities here. Her former role. Her stature. She can’t appear to trump or overpower him. “Has he shown any evidence?”
The judge flicks an invisible speck of lint from his slacks. “Partial— fragmentary—documentation. A plausible link.”
“Crazy people have all kinds of time to make up stories with a shred of plausibility.” She tamps down the power creeping into her voice. “It’s how they get attention. Has he shown actual evidence?”
The judge gives her that one. “A possible discrepancy in crematorium records and dates that could, theoretically, correspond to his claims.”
She flexes her fingers. “Come on, Judge. We know this guy.” She’s riding a line here, but she can’t help herself. Sitting in these chambers she can’t avoid connecting the dots between Wall Street execs going free and a local nut case gaming the system. The injustice exhausts her, and feels personal. “He’s the running joke at the sheriff’s, and he’s before you now only because they’ve stopped finding him funny. He digs up graves, they bring him in, and each time he makes up a wilder story.”
“Defense argues those facts actually substantiate their case.”
“How?” Her power voice. A mistake.
Deep breaths. Professional distance.
The judge is a former football player. A rotary club member. A casual golfer. He is the successful version of the grown-up frat boy.
Martha angles her chair so she doesn’t quite face him. Rather, they both face the window, which looks out on an expansive lawn. Martha smells wet ash. She looks out, glimpses a familiar figure. Black umbrella, black suit, blond satchel, body angled forward in a way that suggests wherever he’s going, he can’t possibly get there fast enough. Martha takes a breath, and lets it out slow. “There’s no chance this claim is genuine, your honor.”
“It’s highly unlikely.”
She leans forward, opens her hands. “Judge—”
“Ms. La Follette. I appreciate your position. I’d feel the same. But I’ve made a judgment here. Due process. Everyone deserves a chance at justice, even—especially—the least of us.” He allows himself a small smile. “I’m sure you agree. And,” he says, “I have to consider the greater good. The Tonawanda Seneca are an important constituency.”
“I promise you we will resolve this as quickly and respectfully as possible.”
Martha struggles to keep her flame low. She locks the professional smile on her face. But she says the words that pop into her head. “I want visiting privileges.” The competitor in her. Some victory, however small.
One corner of the judge’s mouth lifts in amusement. “Visiting privileges.”
“That’s right.” Martha makes her face expressionless. “As long as he’s in custody, I’d like to be able to visit his remains.”
Martha at the kitchen table, computer open. Ever-present mug of tea. A windy night. She’s reading the Times online, despite herself. She’s made it through the news and into the analysis. Marathon weekend negotiations on financial reform in the US Senate failed to result in a bipartisan agreement. The two sides disagree over how much power to give a consumer watchdog agency. A coal glows red in Martha’s brain. Democrats argue that reform is necessary and appropriate, while Republicans continue to assert that government oversight is not the answer, that the market will correct itself. Nearly a year and a half into the worst recession in decades, financial regulation remains unchanged. “Reform is critical to avoiding another crisis,” said Senate spokeswoman Valerie Minor. We continue to hope for a consensus bill.”
“Hope,” Martha says to the air. “The most depressing word in public policy.” Stop. Enough. But she goes back to the front page and clicks another link.
Robert Senior strides in, grey suit aflutter. Holding a sheaf of papers and sipping from a paper carton of milk. He stops short before her and the laptop. A chill emanates from his clothing. Musty barn smells.
“Oh,” he says. “I was hoping to use that.” His face, when not smiling, looks irritated or offended.
She chomps an apple and shrugs.
Senior paces behind her.
“I’m going to be a while,” Martha says. She drinks oolong tea, strong with honey. Clicks on an intriguing headline.
Why No Financial Crisis Prosecutions? Ex-Justice Official Says It’s Just too Hard
David Delacorte, who recently left the FBI for a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission, told the Times that bringing financial wrongdoing to account is “better left to regulators, who can bring civil cases.”
“Right,” she mutters. “We wouldn’t want to start sending criminals to prison.” She sips her tea. Wishes she had outside interests. Stamp collecting. Botany.
“This bill.” Senior’s voice behind her. “This is what you worked on.”
“No. This is what the thing I worked on got traded for. And its teeth are being extracted, one by one.”
He wears a path back and forth behind her. Taps his stack of documents. “I’ve been reading up. What needs to happen?”
“Senate Democrats need to grow a pair and establish a non-negotiable base. But I’m not holding my breath.”
“Tell me one point that matters to you. One that shouldn’t be negotiated away.”
The words come out before she can reason with herself to disengage. “The Consumer Protection Agency needs to be independent. Not part of the Federal Reserve. That’s priority number one.”
“Excellent. And where do you have influence in that?”
“What are you talking about?”
He sets his stack on the table and sits down beside her. Somehow he has a printed copy of the Congressional Record. “Let’s start a list of people for you to talk to this week.”
“They won’t listen. I have nothing to say.”
“Balderdash. The excuse of the weak-willed.”
“Listen, your holiness. My former boss sold us out. He supports this legislation, and I’m not a player anymore. What little sway I might have had is gone.”
Senior considers. “Write a column for the newspaper. The editorial page. Make your case. Promote it through the computer. Make it go venal.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“You say that a lot.”
“So you tell me,” he says. “What might work?”
She shoots him her look.
“Come on,” he says. “It’s a game.”
“Nothing’s a game with you.”
He starts to say something, but she holds up her hand, willing to imagine just to keep him from talking.
“Okay. An influential blogger writes a column on the Huffington Post railing against the bill’s compromises. Detailing each step for voters to email their senators and congressmen to hold the line for Consumer Protection as a cabinet-level agency.” She sips her tea. “Millions do it. And if there’s enough of an outcry that it makes the national news cycle, then maybe—maybe—it shames enough Democrats into making a stand.”
“Excellent. So let’s make a list of those bloggers and consider who you know that knows them.”
“No.” Firm. The window pane rattles and a burst of wintry air cuts through her. She makes eye contact. “Isn’t the wind pretty?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sarcasm. It means I don’t want to talk about it.”
He sniffs the air. Taps his fist against the table. Starts to speak, then stops himself. Leans toward her mug. Sniffs again.
“It’s oolong,” she says. “From China.” She gestures at the tin on the counter. “There’s more.”
He strides over, picks up the container. Opens and examines. Removes a small pyramid of fabric on a string. “Fancy.” It sounds like an attempt at sarcasm. She laughs.
“Yeah. It’s an indulgence.”
A judgmental look crosses his face before he can suppress it. She shoots him side-eye and he shrugs, caught.
“You had your indulgences,” she says.
Wet leaves blow past the window. He looks down at his hands. At her screen. “Tell me about the bill.”
“Come on,” she says. “The best-dressed man in the Senate. Your vanity was legendary. Own up.”
Still inspecting his fingers. She wonders if she’s gone too far. But then his eyes raise and his mouth curls into a grin. “Pomade,” he says softly.
She bobs her head for I-don’t-understand.
“For the hair,” he says. “For many years beeswax, but then an Illinois colleague introduced me to Murray’s Superior Pomade.” He touches his hair. “I was smitten.”
Rain flecks the windows.
“So,” he says. “The bill.”
The two of them reflected dim in the glass. Mere vapors.
Martha scrapes back her chair. “I’m not doing this. You, go for a walk. Get coffee. Do whatever it is you do. Leave me alone for an hour.” She waves at the stack of documents. “And take whatever that is with you.”