GOOD CITIZEN

05.13.13

Bloomberg Terminal Scandal Makes Bunga-Bunga Parties Seem Quaint

When a billionaire mayor’s news company uses his financial company’s products to spy on the nation’s top bankers and officials, no line is left uncrossed.

It’s the sort of overblown abuse of power we like to laugh at in other countries, confident it could never happen here.

A multibillionaire, dissatisfied with being just a business tycoon, starts a media division, brands it with his name and starts to gobble up competition and talent. Then he decides to run for office, knowing his opposition will do the good-citizen thing and stay within the established public-finance law, considered a national model of good government. He plays by his own rules, changing parties not because his politics have changed but because otherwise he’d have no chance of winning, and outspends his competition by tens of millions of dollars. He vows if elected to put aside control of his business to avoid any conflict of interest.

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrives for a news conference at City Hall in December 2012. (Seth Wenig/AP)

He wins and it’s never clear how much he separated himself from the businesses that bear his name. When it comes time for him to step down after two terms as required by law, he decides, no, he’d prefer a third term, thank you very much, and claims a “crisis” requires his personal leadership. After meeting mogul to mogul with the owners of the city’s three leading newspapers, all three editorial boards have changes of heart and declare that what’s good for the billionaire is good for the citizens. Once running, he starts touting how well things are going, thanks to him. When a City Hall reporter asks him if he still needs to run if the crisis has passed, he’s offended and scolds the reporter: “You’re a disgrace.” He spends another fortune and bullies his way into a third term.  

Meanwhile, it appears that his news company, like him, doesn’t like to adhere to the rules of the road. It turns out they have been using the terminals named after the billionaire and that made his fortune to peep and pry into the personal activities of important clients, including the nation’s biggest banks and even top government officials.

But this isn’t happening in a foreign country, it’s a homegrown embarrassment by American oligarch Michael Bloomberg.

If I had been a New York resident, I would have enthusiastically voted for Bloomberg in his first two runs for mayor. When he was running as a Republican, my business partner helped out some on his reelection. It’s a good thing when accomplished men and women from business enter public life. I’m confident he was a better choice than anyone else running.

But for a man who seems obsessed with stopping others from indulging in the excesses of a 16-ounce soft drink, Bloomberg is a glutton. His limitless desire for power and earnest self-righteousness has sent him careening from good citizen to a self-parody of public annoyance. He’s become a rogue billionaire who doesn’t believe the rules apply to him even as he’s busy inventing new ones for the rest of us.

Who does this guy think he is? It’s not like he revolutionized new productive uses for capital or has a long track record of success. He was an equities trader with Solomon Brothers who was laid off in 1981 with a $10 million severance package. He then had one great idea: helping equity professionals trade more profitably with a new kind of information and trading terminal. Brilliant. Glad he made a fortune. Only in America, and that’s a good thing.

But so what? Is the marketing of such a terminal by a laid-off equities broker evidence of a great mind or moral force?

Bloomberg has become a rogue billionaire who doesn’t believe the rules apply to him even as he’s busy inventing new ones for the rest of us.

Most of the media has given Bloomberg a pass for the usual reasons, along with a couple twists of self-interest and fear. The Bloomberg who spends a fortune promoting gun control is celebrated as a good citizen just as a Bloomberg-like figure who spent a fortune promoting gun-owner rights would be vilified as a rich thug. That’s to be expected, but in a world of decreasing media employment opportunities, Bloomberg’s growing empire of well-paid jobs is a bright spot in a bleak horizon—even leaving aside the rumors, which he’s encouraged, that he’d like to buy the Financial Times or The New York Times. It’s leverage he’s practiced at using, and projecting, like when politicians who lost office after backing measures he’s pushed for end up parachuting into good jobs at his private company.

The Bloomberg who journalists criticize today may be the employer they want to interview with tomorrow.

So it will be interesting to see how the media handles this blossoming Bloomberg News scandal. The clear analogy is the phone hacking by the Rupert Murdoch–owned press. But this looks worse, an abuse not by a handful of story-crazed reporters and editors but a corporate collusion between the news and business divisions of Bloomberg’s empire.

To make it even more incestuous and troubling, the head of Bloomberg News is Dan Doctoroff, formerly a deputy mayor. So you now have the confluence of the triad of Bloomberg’s power: Mayor Bloomberg, Bloomberg News, and Bloomberg LP. It won’t take long until it occurs to some enterprising sort—some journalist, lawyer, or prosecutor—to try to walk the cat back and see if the proprietary information of Bloomberg clients was used by the mayor’s office.

If nothing else, the Bloomberg saga would seem to be yet another cautionary parable on the dangers of unchecked power. When he stepped up to run for office, he wanted to help the city he loved. But squashing the public-financing system and running for a third term was disrespectful of the body politic he was trying to improve.

Now it appears another public trust has been violated. You don’t have to throw bunga-bunga parties like Silvio Berlusconi—the two are neighbors in Bermuda, incidentally—to flaunt how much you believe you are above the normal rules. That never ends well.