$11.7 million for blowing the whistle

Even before the Dodds-Frank Act comes into play, whistleblowing can be lucrative in the United State

On Tuesday, Martha Gill revealed the new rewards enabled by the Dodds-Frank act for American whistleblowers.

As she wrote:

A change in whistle blower regulation now has employees rushing about making secret recordings and photocopying internal documents... The new law potentially offers multimillion dollar payouts for those who uncover cases of fraud...

That said, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is not exactly rushing to reward its informants.

The Dodds-Frank act has yet to pay out, but the major change it introduced was the ease with which whistleblowers could get paid, rather than the concept of paying whistleblowers per se. America has a longstanding tradition of financial rewards to those prepared to go through the arduous process of revealing an employer's illegal actions, and on Wednesday, two Georgia mortgage brokers, Victor Bibby and Brian Donnelly, received $11.7m for doing just that.

Reuters reports:

The pair, who worked for U.S. Financial Services Inc, a mortgage brokerage firm in Alpharetta, Georgia, said they became suspicious when lenders told them not to show an amount charged for attorneys fees on loan documents, but instead add the sum to the charge shown for "title examination fee."

After lenders ignored their concerns, Bibby and Donnelly hired an attorney and filed a whistleblower suit.

In the end, the information they supplied was instrumental in forcing JP Morgan to pay a $45m settlement to the government, of which the pair - and their attorneys - received 26 per cent. The case was one of five settlements instituted by whistleblowers which came to light this week, for a combined payout of $227m.

They had to work hard for their money, however, and it is this disincentive which the SEC will be hoping to remove:

The suit remained under seal to give the government time to investigate. Bibby and Donnelly had to keep mum for more than five years and try to find ways to avoid charging the hidden fees.

"For both our families being hushed for such a long time and holding this inside was unbearable," Donnelly said in an interview. "It puts a lot of stress on you."

Being able to get the payout without the five years of living a lie could indeed markedly increase the number of tips. The next concern will be weeding the cranks from the pile.

Referee Mark Clattenburg blows his whistle, ending some football. Credit:Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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