There are similarities and differences between what Bernie Madoff did that landed him in federal prison for a multi-billion-dollar scheme and what Warren Buffett and his cronies are allegedly doing to affordable housing in general and manufactured housing specifically. One similarity is both billionaires for a time were successful in keeping their ‘hiding in plain sight’ plot with relatively scant scrutiny.
It goes without saying that any criminal enterprise – or anyone that blends legal with illegal behavior – would prefer to be as invisible to law enforcement as possible.
That said, there are illegal drug or other criminal cartels known to exist by the public and law enforcement officials. Those illegal activities use a variety of schemes deployed that keep lower ‘street level’ criminal activity as much at arm’s length from the bosses as possible. Due to Constitutionally protected rights which are carefully used by criminals for cover, law enforcement must use counter-strategies to pierce a given criminal enterprise’s veil in order to target a top man vs. lower-level criminals.
It is not the aim of this report to pinpoint a certain date, place or time when “the Castle and Moat” methods of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger or others involved with the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate leadership may have first crossed or blurred the line between legal an illegal activity. Nor is that necessary for law enforcement to do.
What is necessary is that purported illegalities be identified and lawfully addressed.
Those illegalities should be understood as a pattern of actions that on the surface seem legal but when scrutinized are seen as utilizing illegal elements. With that preface, let’s begin.
Public Officials and Mainstream Media With Similar Concerns
We at MHProNews and MHLivingNews are not the first in media to credibly accuse Buffett, Berkshire leaders, Clayton Homes, their affiliated manufactured housing lenders like 21st Mortgage Corporation (21st) and Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance (VMF). Several elected leaders have also accused them of behavior that includes, but is not limited to:
- Racist and racial biased predatory sales and lending practices.
- High pressure and manipulative tactics.
- Behavior that is monopolistic, which by implication suggests a violation of antitrust and possibly other laws.
- See for example a U.S. House of Representatives letter linked here, and a U.S. Senators letter linked here.
A partial list of writers in mainstream news media has raised concerns or openly accused Buffett and Berkshire-owned brands of immoral and arguably illegal behavior. Those media outlets include, but are not limited to, the following. In no particular date or order of importance:
Forbes – in a column by Kori Hale of CultureBanx.
Seattle Times in conjunction initially with the Center for Public Integrity and later BuzzFeed News.
The Nation – The Dirty Secret Behind Warren Buffett’s Billions.
The Atlantic – America’s Fastest Dying Business? Its Mobile Homes.
Jacksonville Florida Times Union – on Clayton Homes, Manufactured Housing Institute and the connection to John Oliver’s viral video.
HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – see video, fact-check and analysis linked here.
Clayton’s hometown TV news, the Knoxville metro station that produced this video report.
One can’t say that what’s been occurring with Buffett, Munger, Berkshire brands and leaders – that include but are not necessarily limited Kevin Clayton, Tim Williams, Eric Hamilton and Tom Hodges – has gone unnoticed. The reports linked above make it clear that it’s no secret.
Indeed, Democratic lawmakers from the House and Senate lawmakers made related own allegations. So too has a recent Minneapolis Federal Reserve report. They have at times cited one or more of the mainstream news and media sources linked above.
What arguably sets our work as trade media apart from them is that we began our study of these vexing issues as longtime manufactured home believers who initially doubted the motivations and allegations. But as time moved on, with industry sources providing us news tips, evidence and clues, we slowly came to the realization that these allegations were credible. In time, that led to the landmark report below, which the Berkshire brands and MHI have repeatedly declined comment on. Read step-by-step, it makes a strong case using documents and the statements in context of Warren Buffett, Tim Williams and Kevin Clayton for violations of antitrust and possibly other federal laws.
But more to the point is that there’s obviously more to these allegations than first meets the eye. There’s numbers who have already decried such allegedly bad behavior.
Buffett and his cronies don’t logically fear mere exposure. Indeed, as a linked article below documents, Buffett’s donations have gone through so-called ‘dark money’ channels to fund some of the very groups that in turn have publicly attacked Berkshire’s brands. This purported scheme is deviously clever in a manner that might have made Madoff jealous.
Let’s pause for those who may be reading here for the first time, or how have only more recently joined our swelling ranks of mostly professional readers.
In making such allegations, this ploy need not be seen as some ‘vast conspiracy.’ That isn’t necessary. It could be carried out by a relatively few individuals. The balance needed are merely employees doing a job, and perhaps doing it – they believe – ethically. In defense of those employees, they are not working for a cartel or mob, but are working for a ‘legitimate business,’ nonprofit or other organization. Some may be working in the federal or state government and are ‘doing a favor’ for someone that they know.
That’s an element that makes this different and more sophisticated than Bernie Madoff’s scheme.
- First, it is far larger and economically vastly more harmful.
- Second, the Omaha-Knoxville-Arlington purported ploy has so many tentacles. Madoff confidence or con game involved a ruse hiding in plain sight. This scheme arguably has also been hiding in plain sight, but has had elements exposed in a devious fashion that may cause those who skim news or headlines to think that it is more evidence of how dirty the ‘mobile home business’ is, and then move on. Instead, they should be focused on the specific firms that these allegations so often revolve around. It’s not manufactured housing that is evil, the manufactured home industry is arguably well researched by third parties and has been proven necessary and useful to millions.
- Third, it is specific firms and nonprofits – performing so-called ‘black hat’ behavior – that should be viewed carefully. Once that personality and organizationally specific focus is made – set in the context of insights linked from this report – then the murky picture can become clearer.
Meanwhile, Buffett, Munger, Clayton, Williams, Hamilton, Hodges, and others smile. Their metaphorical Castle is protected and the sharks or alligators in their Moat are doing the jobs they are supposed to achieve.
What has this castle-and-moat strategy with sharks and alligators resulted in? An increased consolidation of the industry into ever fewer hands. Those hands are often owned by Berkshire, have direct or other ties to Berkshire brands.
The Arlington, VA based MHI is arguably an important tool in the hands of those consolidators.
Paltering, Misdirection, Deflection, Detraction, Carrots-Sticks and Head-Fakes
Unlike mainstream media, our manufactured home trade media lives and breathes these issues day-by- day. No offense to mainstream media, but they cover all news, not just manufactured housing news. Further, mainstream media don’t have the same level of expertise that we do to understand the nuances.
During a growing affordable housing crisis, the manufactured home industry has dramatically shrunk since its last high of 1998. That reality may engender a knee jerk reaction to protect their own, whenever possible. That natural human reaction may to some degree be made against MHProNews years ago – before we as pro-industry trade media slowly wised up – and that may apply to others too.
An industry struggling to survive may grab the most obvious life-boat, not realizing that the dingy vessel has been booby-trapped. Using carrots and sticks, trade media may de facto be bought off, scared off or otherwise neutralized. Again, such patterns have nuances which may set it apart from Madoff’s con-game method.
Buffett and Berkshire have ‘legitimate’ businesses, not a Ponzi scheme like the convict Madoff.
But those legitimate businesses stand credibly accused by an array of sources of deploying tactics which are illicit if not demonstrably illegal. Articles like the one linked here or the one linked from the text/image box below details how Buffett, Tim Williams and Kevin Clayton’s own documents, video, words and deeds purportedly violates antitrust, RICO and other laws so boldly that it wiped out thousands of previously successful independent enterprises.
Part of that was presented months ago to the New York State Attorney General’s Office. Upon examination, they reportedly referred it onto federal officials. Rephrased, attorneys and law enforcement professionals found it credible.
Other antitrust attorneys have reviewed information like what is described and linked from this report. They too have said that they found it credible. Reports indicate that investigations are underway.
But do investigations cause Buffett much angst? An industry legal source outside the Beltway has told MHProNews that Berkshire has reshuffled their antitrust legal team. If so, that’s a clue.
But it is Warren Buffett, routinely one of the top 5 richest men in the world, who along with others in the Berkshire empire that are being accused. One must note that law enforcement professionals may at times be reluctant to push issues against the powerful. Something similar occurred initially in the early allegations against Madoff – whose illicit scheme was admittedly different, but similarly operating in plain sight.
Indeed, some elected officials may be reluctant for more than one reason to begin with caution, why? Among other factors, they may have campaign contributions from one or more sources connected to the powerful involved. That’s why media and other researchers are well advised to follow the money trail. See who, for example, Berkshire dominated MHI has given campaign contributions to in recent years.
With the number of interconnected tentacles involved, it is not hard to spot examples of candidates that are getting both support – and challenges – supported by Buffett, his minions, or their surrogates and allies.
Rephrased, they are arguably buying cover in a variety of ways.
So, what does Buffett and company fear? It arguably isn’t ‘exposure’ per se. Rather, it is exposure based upon solid evidence that is persistent and begins to organize and push for lawful, public investigations and legal action.
Persistent exposure combined with steady demands from the public, smaller businesses and others for legal investigation and actions are reportedly the source of greater angst for the boys in the Omaha-Knoxville-Arlington axis. That’s what they fear. Steady exposure combined with legal action are how this highly harmful and huge alleged scam could be brought to a well-deserved end.
How big is the impact of this scheme? See the report below that weaves elements of public comments from the 12.2.2-2019 Washington, D.C. FHFA ‘listening session’ together into an evidence-based expose of how brazen this could prove to be.
Plenty of Voices Raised Warning Against Buffett, Berkshire Brands and For- or Non-profit Allies
Years of early warning against Buffett, Berkshire and MHI came from the Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform (MHARR).
But years of MHARR warnings were not alone. Others in MHVille have said similarly.
Members from within MHI often said thing that pointed to internal problems, even if they may not have fully realized that what they were complaining about was part of a larger and more brazen scheme.
To Kenny Lipschutz’s point, a look at the data reveals the accuracy of his statement. In 1998, manufactured housing (MH) was outselling recreational vehicles (towable and motorized RVs) by a margin of 3 to 2. Fast-forward two decades, and RVs grew in shipments while manufactured housing production and shipments shrank. The ratio has shifted from 3 to 2 in favor of MH to in recent years a stunning 5 to 1 in favor of RVs.
Part of the reason? Again, to Lipschutz’s point, it is ‘Financing.’ RVs are often more expensive, certainly lose value – unlike manufactured homes which often are documented to appreciate – yet manufactured homes are harder to finance?
Some of the voices of protest may have had their own dark deeds. Thus, the quotes ought to be taken with the principle of separating the wheat from the chaff in mind.
It is worth noting anew that we came slowly to realize how the industry was being undermined from within. So long as our platform was largely in the dark, questioning matters, but still not clear on how the scheme was working – powers that be at MHI or backing MHI were happy to sing our praises.
In hindsight, to the point Frank Rolfe’s quote points to, the pattens of problematic leadership at MHI are a key feature of this scheme. Whatever one might think about the goal of the Preserving Access to Manufactured Housing Act, it was arguably doomed from early on.
Which begs the question. Why would MHI leaders push a legislative fix for a law that was de facto backed by Warren Buffett through candidates he supported? Why spend millions of dollars and years battling for a bill that seemingly pitted Tim Williams against his own boss?
To answer that think ‘rope a dope’ and the following. Let’s note that regulatory barriers have been named – along with high taxes – as a means of staving off or killing off competitors.
Further, let’s mention that fostering bad news can fuel the call for more regulations. In essence, bad news can become a weapon used against smaller competitors. Rent control legislation is spreading, for instance, despite the fact that the larger community operators at MHI admitted in a public statement that they know how to navigate those laws. Meanwhile, what about the thousands of smaller community operators?
Then, when you add into the mix the imagined ‘respectability’ of Buffett or Berkshire – combined with their wealth and power – what one has is a complex set of head-fakes, clever misdirection, traps, pitfalls and swindles. It is all made possible because of corrosive influence of money and influence.
Buffett postures being a philanthropist and a folksy billionaire. But the Jay Leno quote below says much.
Of course, if you back – using the example that Tim Williams at 21st made, progressive causes – on the one hand, while using money to buy influence with candidates in both major parties, the effect is acidic. It is a veiled form of the Robber Baron and Gilded Age eras of American history.
Who is Harmed by This Pattern?
In no particular order of importance, the powers that be in MHVille’s debatable scheme described herein harms the following groups:
- Seniors and those of lower economic resources. Millions live in manufactured homes and communities. Stiff hikes in site fees cause them undo stress and economic harm. It is possible in part because the powers that be at and behind MHI fail to promote the proper use of good laws and information. The stiff hikes in site fees may violate a variety of state level and other laws.
Investors – who may believe they are investing in a firm that’s trying to lawfully seeking to maximize their returns short term, when in fact the firm invested in may demonstrably take, support or avoid actions harmful to short-term interests that may also violate one of several laws. Think of the SEC subpoena of Joe Stegmayer, former MHI Chairman, also former Cavco Industries chair, president and CEO – who previously worked for Clayton Homes as a divisional president.
- Affordable housing seekers, who are often scared off of a good option for them short term by negative news reports fueled in part by upstream donations paid by Warren Buffett.
- Smaller businesses. MHI and several of their affiliates claim to be representing ‘all segments of manufactured housing.’ If so, they are doing a remarkably good job of overseeing the steady consolidation of the industry, while posturing efforts that seem to benefit all, but in fact benefit a few.
- Taxpayers, local, state and federal government. The Congress passed good laws that are supposed to promote free enterprise solutions to the affordable housing crisis. The Duty to Serve provisions of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) of 2008, or the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act (MHIA) of 2000 are examples of good laws that have seemingly inexplicably gone under-enforced, have been ignored or have otherwise been perverted. Mark Weiss explained why the MHIA and enhanced preemption matters.
These and more begs several questions. Why does MHI only periodically posture supporting a law that if enforced would bring more business to the independents of the industry while reducing the affordable housing crisis?
David Dworkin, National Housing Conference, Compared and Contrasted with Lesli Gooch, Manufactured Housing Institute on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac Proposed Modifications to FHFA on Duty to Serve Finance Plans
It would be tempting to say that MHI and their string-pullers fumble so often or do so many outrageous things that they must either be: incompetent, lazy, manipulated or in some fashion corrupted. But when carefully examined, the people at MHI are educated. It is hard to reconcile the first two with other known facts. That tends to make the argument that wittingly or not, they are corrupt or allow themselves to be used in a fashion that consolidates the industry into ever fewer hands.
These and other allegations could be made. But these points have more than enough evidence to merit several different types of investigations.
It’s time for public officials to investigate the following.
- Harm done to consumers.
- Harm done to especially more modest investors and white hat small businesses.
- Harm done to taxpayers, local, state and federal government – which spends tens of billions annually on affordable housing programs that would be shrinking naturally if good laws were being properly enforced.
Only a small group of insiders benefits from this scheme while the vast majority are harmed directly, indirectly or both.
Congress or perhaps even state level lawmakers should hold public hearings. They should use their subpoena powers to compel the production of documents and bring forward witnesses to testify under oath on these topics. This writer would willingly testify, as one of the most involved in researching these matters in recent years. Would Buffett, Munger, Kevin Clayton, Williams, Jennison or others be willing to testify under oath? Let’s find out.
Sunlight must be shined on this pattern. In a parallel path, various public agencies – state attorney generals, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), HUD, FHFA and other agencies should do their own investigations. They should look for internal collusion or corruption in cases involving HUD and the FHFA, perhaps others.
We believe in free enterprise, but we oppose crony manipulative capitalism. The two are not the same thing. The free market has been so twisted by this plot that tens of millions have been harmed. The time for public officials to do what the law requires is now. We keep hearing, no one is above the law.
With sentiment rising against the uber-rich, this is as good a time as any to see how and why ‘the system has been rigged.’
What do the powers that be in MHVille fear?
Trustworthy: Information – Investigation – Sustain Education on these issues that mobilizes ‘white hats’ to push public officials to enforce good existing laws. See the related reports linked herein or further below the byline and notices.
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By L.A. “Tony” Kovach – for MHLivingNews.com.
Tony earned a journalism scholarship and earned numerous awards in history and in manufactured housing. For example, he earned the prestigious Lottinville Award in history from the University of Oklahoma, where he studied history and business management. He’s a managing member and co-founder of LifeStyle Factory Homes, LLC, the parent company to MHProNews, and MHLivingNews.com. This article reflects the LLC’s and/or the writer’s position, and may or may not reflect the views of sponsors or supporters.
Connect on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/latonykovach
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