FISA Court Judges Keep Buying Verizon Stock; Wonder What They Know…

from the foia-ftw dept

Lee Fang, over at Vice, has quite a revelation based on some FOIA requests. It seems that the various judges on the FISA Court who keep approving the NSA’s requests for bulk data from the telcos… also seem to keep buying Verizon stock.

On May 28 last year, Judge James Zagel, a FISA Court member since 2008, purchased stock in Verizon. In June of this year, Zagel signed off on a government request to the FISA Court to renew the ongoing metadata collection program.

He’s not the only one. We filed a request to the courts for the personal finance statements for all of the FISA Court judges. About a month ago, federal judges began turning in their disclosures, which cover the calendar year of 2013. The disclosures show that FISA Court Judge Susan Wright purchased Verizon stock valued at $15,000 or less on October 22. FISA Court Judge Dennis Saylor has owned Verizon stock, and last year collected a dividend of less than $1,000. The precise amount and value of each investment is unclear?like many government ethics disclosures, including those for federal lawmakers, investments amounts are revealed within certain ranges of value.

While this may not be a true sign of corruption, it at least raises some basic ethics questions. As Fang notes, ethics rules say that judges need to recuse themselves from cases where they have a financial stake in the outcome. But, it’s not as clear cut, since the telcos aren’t actually parties to the cases brought by the DOJ to the FISA Court (there are no other parties, generally, it’s just the government). And even if there isn’t anything fishy here, just the appearance of a potential bias seems problematic.

“I think prudence would suggest that a FISA judge would not acquire investments in these telecommunication stocks,” says Professor William G. Ross, an expert on judicial ethics at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law in Alabama. “I’m not saying there is a conflict of interest, which my impression says there’s probably not,” Ross says, adding, “this is between what’s improper and what’s prudent.”

And, indeed, there definitely appears to be a conflict of interest here. As you may recall, it’s been reported that the telcos were given over $100 million for “volunteering” to hand over customer records. While that may be peanuts overall to a major telco’s bottom line, it’s not nothing.

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Companies: verizon

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Comments on “FISA Court Judges Keep Buying Verizon Stock; Wonder What They Know…”

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Groaker (profile) says:

I have no fondness for the FISA court, and would love to nail them on just about anything they are guilty if. But the purchase of small amounts of Verizon stock may be unseemly and imprudent, but hardly de facto corruption.

This stock is generally considered a safe retirement stock, and is often used for that purpose alone.

Certainly from an economic viewpoint, I would be willing to make a long term investment in a stock with Verizon’s situation. But I do not knowingly invest in stocks of companies that behave the way that Verizon does.

I also agree with Michael @5:50. The FISA court’s display of technical logic implies that the most profitable investments would be contrarian to that of the FISA court.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

While a minor issue, it is not completely irrelevant. Since there are economic interests at play, it is a thing where prudency is questionable. At the same time, this is a court where rulings are sealed. You need far more trust in these judges than normal judges because for normal judges, the results of their work can be scrutinized. A lack of prudency among the FISA judges is bad and it could warrent a further scrutiny of their potential conflict of interests, except that is going to be difficult to conduct…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Your permanently out to lunch Legislature does not believe courts should be struck down anymore… They seem to think they are operating at 100%.

Courts being toppled used to be a natural way for them to be ‘encouraged’ to actually enforce law appropriately instead of corruptly.

Groaker (profile) says:

The purchase of the stock is like going after the FISA court for attempted jaywalking, when we really should be impeaching them for destruction of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

And they should really suffer a more serious punishment for the damage that has been done to the nation, except that I don’t think that falls within the legal framework (though it should.)

Groaker (profile) says:

Both the Court System and the Legislative Branch have become pretty much meaningless. It is only within the last few weeks that the FBI got up and walked out of a Senate hearing because they did not like the questions they were asked. The committee should have had them arrested and put in the cells underneath the Congress for that purpose, but just nothing happened.

The NSA has admitted to lying to SCOTUS. Again nothing happened.

The visible executive branch probably doesn’t run the show either, but more likely the “shadow government” that Cheney was so fond of talking about.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Really? Quoting “probably not A” and then just stating “definitely appears to be A” counts as analysis in your book?

Or is defending the authors here just a knee-jerk reaction? This is, at best, bad writing. More realistically (in my opinion) it shows the tendency to spin every article towards a certain pre-formed viewpoint.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Because I fail to see any conflict, the article doesn’t identify any conflict, the expert quoted says it looks like there’s no conflict. On that background, I think it is unreasonable to say there definitely appears to be a conflict.

Maybe it appears that way to a moron in a hurry.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

I think that, as Kal so aptly explained, the appearance of a conflict of interest is pretty obvious. I suspect that it’s only that — an appearance — because things look less shady when you peer closer. But the appearance is certainly there. I know you keep going to the expert, but the expert’s opinion is completely irrelevant to the issue of appearances.

I am curious, though… you seem to be quite emotional about this, given that it’s a relatively minor article that makes no serious allegations. Why?

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“definitely appears to be a conflict of interest” != “there is a conflict of interest”.

The statement “And, indeed, there definitely appears to be a conflict of interest here.” was in reference to “I think prudence would suggest that a FISA judge would not acquire investments in these telecommunication stocks,” which was quoted logically following the statement “And even if there isn’t anything fishy here, just the appearance of a potential bias seems problematic.”

In other words, Mike was saying that there definitely exists the appearance of a conflict of interest. Even if there is no actual conflict of interest, the semblance of one alone is a problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think it’s a reasonable seque. I mean, to quote someone as saying “I don’t think there’s a conflict of interest” and then say there definitely appears to be one is, at the very least, an unexplained leap.

It’s like quoting someone saying “It doesn’t look confusing to me” then stating there definitely is a likelihood of confusion. At least explain how you get from one to the other.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

It’s a matter of public perception. While someone who is well versed in judicial ethics might be able to say that there’s probably not a conflict of interest (which is not a particularly strong statement in itself), a layman’s view would see the act in question as dubiously ethical.

Your focus is on the wrong word. Don’t read it as “there definitely appears to be a conflict of interest”, read it as “there definitely appears to be a conflict of interest”. It is easy to prove that there appears to be a conflict of interest:

When I first heard about this story, I assumed there was a conflict of interest.

After reading about it in more depth, it appears that the stock is merely an investment vehicle, and there may not be a conflict of interest.

QED, there appears to be a conflict of interest until one looks closer.

An action which would cause a non-trivial portion of the public to question the ethical standing of one who is a secret arbiter of ethical judgement is something which should be avoided. I.e., those that preside over secret courts need to be entirely above reproach, not merely technically avoiding a conflict of interest.

Groaker (profile) says:

Not true that politicians didn’t normally get paid. That rumor was started by the behavior of George Washington. He was offered a salary, but said he would rather take expenses. He came out way ahead on the deal.

There have been politicians who donated all or a portion of their salaries back to their level of government, but they were in the minority.

There were also “dollar a year” men who were executives paid a normal salary by their corporations to assist in the efforts during WWI and WWII. There may have also been some during the ’29 depression.

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