Observer - US

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Christopher Cox, the newly-appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, may have recused himself from the continuing probe into Bill Frist’s brilliantly-timed sale of his HCA stock, but there is still plenty of room for possible conflicts – or appearances of conflicts – thanks to Washington’s notorious revolving door.

The Senate majority leader has hired Wilmer Cutler, the Washington law firm, to represent him in the SEC’s investigation into his sale of HCA stock, which came just days before the shares tanked on a bad earnings forecast.

Frist has insisted that he had no insider information on the company, that was founded by his family and whose board includes his brother, Thomas.

Stephen Cutler, the tough former enforcement director at the SEC who gave Martha Stewart such a hard time about her own stock dealings, was hired by Wilmer Cutler this year, following his departure from the securities regulator.

While it is unclear whether Cutler will be taking on Frist’s case himself, there is no doubt he still has excellent connections at the SEC.

The top investigator at the SEC is Cutler’s former deputy, Linda Thomsen.

Thomsen was named enforcement director after he left the job for the private sector.

New target

Company pension funds, already struggling under the weight of their unfunded liabilities, might be comforted to learn that at last someone is taking a very strong interest in their problems.

That is, until they find out the someone is William Lerach, famed class action lawyer fresh from the battlefields of court action against WorldCom and Enron.

Lerach plans today to address the Japan Society on the topic “of impending international pension fund calamity”, according to a press release.

It goes on: “Lerach will explain how many corporations in the bull market years took inflated stock options for granted, slashed employer contributions to corporate pension funds to artificially boost earnings, and created a huge pool of victims – the retirees to whom corporate pension payouts have been promised.”

If the unfunded liabilities don’t get the pension funds, it looks like maybe Lerach will.

Could his talk be something of a trial balloon?

Bright lights

So just what will Britain’s ruling Labour party look like once Tony Blair has headed off into the sunset?

A high-profile debate this week between three of the party’s younger stars – ministers David Miliband, Ruth Kelly and the MP and economics guru Ed Balls – was standing room only as delegates at Labour’s annual conference flocked to hear about the future.

Unfortunately thanks to thin walls and the musical tastes of those hosting an event next door, what the audience mostly heard was some somnolent elevator-style jazz.

The unusual acoustic backdrop muffled earnest talk about the urgent need to study closely the Scandinavian experience of renewal in government and address the “powerlessness” felt by many “ordinary” people.

But it is a feeling sometimes even shared by extraordinary people. In a further element of farce the room’s lights failed just as the super-brainy Miliband was building up to a rhetorical high-point.

“I feel a sense of powerlessness descending upon me,” he jokingly remarked. “Well enlighten us then,” came the riposte from the floor.

Observer hopes that by the time he and the others on the platform are running the UK they will have got the lights to work.

Rocky road

The news that the Irish Republican Army had decommissioned its weapons came conveniently on the eve of Tony Blair’s keynote speech to the Labour party conference.

But amid all the usual talk of significant and historic steps forward, some things are as they always are in the intense and highly factionalised world of Northern Ireland politics.

At the “Ulster Fry”, a regular non-partisan breakfast event, all of the high-level speakers and panellists were keen to talk about what’s next – except, that is, for Nigel Dodds, the senior member of the Democratic Unionist Party, the most hardline of the parties representing the Protestant majority, who pulled out at the last minute.

Dodds was due to sit next to Pat Doherty from Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA and the party with whom – all observers agree – the DUP will have to work if devolved government is ever to be restored to Northern Ireland.

If they can’t even share a coffee and croissant, they will need more than a full fried breakfast to sustain them over what promises to be a long and arduous way ahead.

Flashback

President Bush’s recommendation that Americans try to conserve gasoline conjured images of a sweater-clad Jimmy Carter in the minds of many Americans.

ABC’s The Note, a website for political junkies, took the Carter concept a step further. Claiming it had a leaked copy of an upcoming Bush speech, The Note printed a lengthy presidential address full of talk of sacrifice and – most shockingly – mention of an “energy crisis”.

One line in particular seemed to signal a change in the tone from the Bush White House: “Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?” Only when readers clicked on a link was the truth revealed: the speech was delivered by President Carter in 1979.

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