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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009 04:06 am

The troubling ethics of Timothy Geithner

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President Barack Obama meets with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Vice President Joe Biden Jan. 29.
Chuck Kennedy/MCT

In describing a suspicious character who had visited his home, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Average Americans today might need to be counting their spoons, because President Obama and the Congress have visited Timothy Geithner upon us. He’s the new treasury secretary, our nation’s top financial official, whose duties include handling the ongoing Wall Street debacle.

Not only has Geithner felt it necessary to talk insistently about his honor, but Obama and assorted members of Congress have also felt compelled to assure us that Tim really is an honest guy. It’s a bit like hanging a sign on the Treasury building declaring, “Honest Tim’s Used Bailouts.”

What forced this rash of testimonials to Geithner’s integrity is that, in a 2006 audit, the IRS found that he had failed to pay his Social Security and Medicare taxes for 2003 and 2004. Oops, my bad, said Geithner at the time, ponying up $16,732 for back taxes and interest.

But — oops, again — when he was being vetted for the Treasury job last November, it turns out he’d also dodged these same payroll taxes in 2001 and 2002. He conveniently failed to volunteer these earlier violations to the auditors in 2006. Nailed by the presidential vetters, Geithner sheepishly rushed out another belated payment to the IRS, this one totaling $25,970.

“It was an innocent mistake,” Obama quickly asserted when the transgression became public: “Careless and avoidable, but unintentional,” insisted the perpetrator himself. “A lot to do about nothing,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, dismissively.

Well, plenty of people do make mistakes on their tax forms, or even occasionally try to scoot by Uncle Sam without paying the full due bill. But none of these folks was nominated to run the agency that includes the IRS! And none of them has worked in key positions at the Treasury under three presidents, been a major official at the International Monetary Fund or headed the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for the past five years, as has Geithner.

What we have here is a treasury secretary with what the New York Times called “a cavalier attitude” toward paying his own taxes, thus tainting his ability to command respect from us hoi polloi.

Yet the White House and Congress, which talk ceaselessly about the ethic of personal responsibility, mostly averted their eyes. Why? Because he’s one of the ultimate insiders — a “trusty” of Wall Street, which has never let ethics get in the way of grabbing another dollar bill.

Sen. Charles Grassley delivered the ultimate endorsement of Geithner, declaring, “He fits in.” This embrace was seconded by the lobbyist for Wall Street’s biggest firms, who said, “The industry is very supportive” of the appointment.

I’ll bet! After all, Geithner spent his time at the New York Fed as a backer of the disastrous financial deregulation policy that, at first, wildly profited big banks and speculators, before inevitably leading to the collapse that is now crushing our nation’s economy. Since the crash, he’s been a chief architect of the failed bailout scam that has shoved trillions of our tax dollars into the hands of the very banking hotshots who made this mess.

And now, as treasury secretary, Geithner is pushing Obama to pursue a second bailout scheme that would take all of the bad investments that Wall Street made and “give” them to the government (i.e., us taxpayers) to manage. His scheme would clean up the ledgers of the banks, making them solvent at our expense, while leaving the same old bankers and their major investors in charge, suffering no penalty for the enormous damage they wreaked on us.

Count your spoons. This is not the “change” that so many of us voted for. It’s the deliberate perpetuation of Wall Street’s ethic of greed.

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