Today New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo made news headlines by coming down hard on American International Group (AIG), the company that has paid out millions of dollars in bonuses to some of the people thought responsible for the billions of dollars in losses that preceded government bailout money that continues to flow to the insurance giant.
In a letter to AIG Chairman Ed Liddy (PDF), Cuomo requested a “list of individuals who are to receive payments under this retention plan, as well as their positions at the firm” and “a list of who negotiated these contracts and who developed this retention plan.”
He goes on to write that “taxpayers of this country are now supporting AIG, and they deserve at the very least to know how their money is being spent.”
The New York Times reports that the Attorney General said this in a conference call today: “I believe in transparency and disclosure. We believe taxpayers have a right to know.”
I applaud the Attorney General for seeking such concrete data in his ongoing investigation into AIG compensation. Lists like this are essential in getting to the bottom of things and, as he notes, in seeing how and where government money is spent.
That’s why, in June of last year, I attempted to get a complete list from the Attorney General about another one of his investigations. This one was centered on the sale of expired products in CVS and Rite Aid pharmacies in New York State.
On June 12, 2008, the Attorney General published a press release about his investigation, along with a list of locations where expired pharmacy products were found (PDF). Baby formula, Children’s Tylenol, Gerber baby food, and other products were found on the shelves, ready for sale. He also held a press conference with expired products laid out like tommy guns or marijuana bricks pulled from panel vans. It was a good news day for the office.
The news coverage focused on aggregate numbers, regional interest, or sensational detail (the Wall Street Journal wrote that “we scanned the list and found plenty of items whose expiration was more like days or weeks in the rear-view mirror,” and then goes on to list some instances of expired products in some locations.)
At EveryBlock, we decided to publish a special report listing every location in New York City on our website. As we prepared the report, I wrote to the Attorney General’s office requesting a list of all of the pharmacies that investigators visited and where they found no expired products. The idea is that it’s valuable to know that state government employees — the people working on your behalf with your money — are looking out for you by visiting your neighborhood pharmacy to check things out. The result of that visit — whether it was positive or negative — is news. Moreover, with a complete list, we may be able to detect patterns that are invisible with the publication of incomplete data.
We published the available data for expired items found within the city limits, and I spent weeks attempting to get a complete list of the 500 pharmacies that the Attorney General claims he sent his investigators. His office has refused to fulfill our request.
Here in March 2009 United States of America, it seems to be the simplest political shibboleth to proclaim one’s support for transparency and accountability. But I’ve also noticed that actually living up to that is often less of a priority.