About Me

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I'm a business journalist and a fiction author. My novel Mute is available now from Silver Leaf Books.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hacking isn’t journalism, it’s a crime

I might take heat from other journalists for saying this, but someone needs to speak up.

Hacking to obtain information isn’t journalism. It’s a crime, and journalists should stop supporting it.

The way many news outlets are covering WikiLeak’s irresponsible data dump, including personal passwords stolen from emails, is encouraging the hackers. The chairman of Clinton’s campaign had his phone and social media accounts taken over because the hackers shared his passwords with the world.

That’s not blowing the whistle on corruption. That’s harassment.

There are many times when journalists will write important stories based on documents that parties didn’t intend to release. In the Panama Papers series, for instance, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists shared documents about international banking that a whistleblower found at their law firm with a team of journalists. That resulted in many stories about public official corruption and questionable transactions. However, the journalists didn’t release every single document, and they certainly didn’t put personal information out there. They created a searchable database that tied individuals to companies.

Compare that to WikiLeaks, which has released social security and credit card numbers in its unedited data dumps. What’s the journalistic purpose in that?

The Panama Papers came from a whistleblower at the bank who had access to the documents. Many times, people who see something wrong can’t come forward without getting in trouble, so they pass on information they were privy to.

You could also argue that Edward Snowden was a whistleblower because the government information he had access to shook his moral compass, although he could have been much more careful not to release confidential information that put lives at risk. Snowden has criticized WikiLeaks for its “hostility to even modest curation."

The hackers who have stolen emails from politicians are not blowing the whistle because they didn’t have the right to access that information in the first place. It’s akin to the Watergate break in where operatives for President Nixon stole files from the Democratic Party. But this time the media is playing along and publicizing the documents that were stolen. Since we know that the hackers have a political motive, how can the media trust that the information supposedly in the email is accurate?

Maybe because there hasn’t been a real bombshell. But that’s besides the point.

This isn’t a political issue. It’s a crime that can be used against any party, or company. Remember when North Korea hacked Sony Pictures because they were offended by a comedy movie about Kim Jung-Un? I spoke out against that too.

Hacking will happen whether the media covers it or not, but promoting hacked material helps the criminals injure their victims. It’s like when people share videos of teens getting bullied or beaten up on social media, and how that amplifies the pain and embarrassment. The more it hurts, the more likely the bully will strike again, and that goes for the hacker as well.

In the never-ending battle for ratings and clips, sometimes journalists need to stop and think about the behavior they’re promoting.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Carspotting in Israel, an international menu of automobiles

During my two-week vacation in Israel, I did a lot of double takes at the car logos. What's that lion? That's not the "S" for Subaru or Suzuki, so what is it? Who makes a car with a winged arrow?

The selection of cars in Israel is even more international than in the United States. Yes, they have all the brands that we have plus they've mixed in brands from automakers in Europe and Asia that aren't available in the United States. Even the familiar brands, such as Nissan, Toyota and Kia, sell special models in Israel, and Europe as well.

Israeli auto preferences are decidedly different from the United States. Small is the rule over there. Cars like a Toyota Corolla or Hyundai Elantra are considered full-sized sedans. It's common to have cars even smaller than that, Euro-style cars where you either have a second row or a trunk in use, not both. That's because the city streets in much of Israel are narrow. People often park on the street, so the smaller you are, the easier it is to maneuver and find a space. For people with a driveway, it's often very tight. Garages are extremely rare, reserved for the most luxurious homes.

An SUV simply wouldn't fit into many Israeli neighborhoods.

Another factor, gas is extra expensive in Israel so people usually don't get big cars, SUVs and trucks. Luxury nameplates are fairly rare because they're extra costly to buy in Israel. On the other hand, some of these European brands are less expensive.

On with the carspotting.

The lion logo is a Peugoet, a French brand that has made cars since 1882. It's a subsidiary of PSA Peugeot Citroën, the latter name also being a car brand. This particular model is a tiny 107.

The French-made Citroën has a double arrow logo. It makes a variety of cars, from minis to station wagons like this C4 to vans and work vehicles.

The Škoda Octavia and its arrow with wings logo. Škoda is headquarted in the Czech Republic, although it's now a subsidiary of Volkswagen.

The diamond logo is for Renault, a French company around since 1898. Pictured is the little Renault Clio and a mid-sized Renault Fluence taxi (I rode in one of those).

The design of the Renault Kangoo (not kangaroo) is a typical Euro/Israeli work truck. It's sort of an SUV in the front and a van in the back. Many brands have a nearly identical model, such as the Citroën Jumpy and the Peugeot Partner. They usually have work equipment in the back and, for some reason, all the ones in Israel were white. 

The Dacia Duster, a great name for a desert-driving SUV. Dacia is a Romanian car manufacturer founded in 1966, although it's now a subsidiary of Renault. It's actually the largest company by revenue in Romanian.

Several car brands have an "S" but you won't find this style in the United States. SEAT is from Spain. It was founded by a state-owned company in 1950, although its now controlled by Volkswagen. Pictured is the cute little Ibiza.

The "O" stands for Opel. The "Z" is silent. Opel is a long-time German car manufacturer, although it's been a subsidiary of the U.S.'s General Motors since the 1930s. Most of its cars, like this Opel Corsa, are fairly small. Perhaps that's why the GM hasn't introduced this brand into the U.S.

The Terios from Japanese car-maker Daihatsu. It's actually the oldest auto company in Japan having been founding in 1907. It makes mostly small cars and SUVs. Fun fact, it previously produced a truck called the Daihatsu Naked.

This big truck is made by MAN. That's a Germany manufacture of industrial vehicles, one of the most commonly-found brands in Israel. I guess the U.S. isn't MAN enough for this company.

Ever seen a Nissan Micra? You won't find it in the U.S. This super-mini is sold in Europe, Asia, Latin America and, yes, Israel. You could fit four in the typical American garage.

I've seen many Toyotas, but not a Space Verso like this. This model is a five- or seven-seater that's sold in Israel, Europe, China and South Africa. It's what they call a compact MPV (multi-purpose vehicle). Think of it like the mini version of the seven-seat SUV.

With a name like Picanto, you can guess that this Kia is pretty small. Heck, it makes a Kia Rio look huge.

I thought all Fiats were tiny little things. In Israel, Fiat has plenty of vans and work trucks.

I did see some Alfa Romeos and some DS cars driving around, but I couldn't get their photos because I didn't want to bother the drivers. Alfa Romeo is an Italian brand that makes small, sport cars and it's now part of Fiat Chrysler. DS is the luxury spin-off of Citroën, which created it in 2009 and made it a separate brand in 2014.

After seeing all these international models, which one would you most like to see introduced in the United States?

I can't wait to go off-roading in a Dacia Duster.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My observations about life in Israel

After spending two weeks in Israel, I learned a lot about what it’s like to live there. While there are so many things I have yet to grasp about life in the Holy Land, let me share my observations - both big and small - with you.

The condo boom followed me! There are more construction cranes in Israel than in Miami. Everywhere I looked, they were building something, especially in central Israel. I was told that many Jews from Europe are moving to Israel, or at least buying condos in preparation for a move, for personal safety reasons. Many wealthy Jews want to own a piece of Israel, even if they don’t live there. All of this is great for the construction industry, but these new condos are very expensive for the average working-class Israel. Sound familiar, Miami?

Israeli cities are pretty dense. Most of them have busy city centers and multifamily buildings packed together, a very urban feel. However, there are large open spaces and agricultural areas between the cities. That’s partly due to the cities being construction where the government built the water supply. Unlike in Florida, you can’t just dig a well anywhere and find water.

How scare is water? We really take it for granted in Florida. The one home I visited that had a full grass yard and a pool had a water bill of $1,000 a month in the summertime. It’s a luxury. So is a garage.

Despite the dense cities, Israel has many parks. The newer cities are well-designed with frequent pocket parks, often with playground, outdoor fitness equipment, and combo basketball/soccer courts. BTW, I saw the kids using those courts only for soccer, not basketball. Those parks make the neighborhoods great for kids. (Are you listening, South Florida?)

Israel also has many small, neighborhood markets. People often walk a few blocks for their groceries.

Paseos (alleys between streets) save time while walking to parks, markets or visiting neighbors. Not every square foot has to be used for development. (Pay attention, South Florida.)

Instead of traffic lights at every corner, Israel has many roundabouts. Traffic flows through them fairly smoothly, as long as people obey the rules.

Israel has solar power, sort of. Most homes have solar-powered water heaters on the roof. The good news is this saves on electricity. The bad news is that you shouldn’t take too long in that hot shower.

When I visited Eilat on the southern tip of Israel, I was pleased to find it had city-wide free WiFi. That’s a great idea for a tourist spot. It also has a city-sponsored app. This Red Sea resort is so much fun.

Most malls in Israel had indoor entertainment activities for kids (for a fee, of course.) These ranged from indoor playgrounds to the ice rink and roller coaster in the Ice Mall in Eilat.

There's serious security at malls, and at many other public places in Israel. They don’t have flashlights. These guards are armed and they are constantly looking for suspicious people, often asking questions and inspecting bags. It’s just a part of life.

From Tel Aviv to Eilat, Israel has great beaches. If you are a surfer, Herzliya had the best waves. Eilat has the best diving because the coral reefs are right off the beach. Most of the beaches have great restaurants, including South Beach’s food stand on the sand in Herzliya.

Not all the food is kosher. Most malls have a kosher McDonalds (home of the Big American) and a non-kosher McDonalds (home of the Big American, with cheese). But if you eat kosher, Israel is culinary paradise.

Most restaurants don’t have napkin dispensers and many don’t have ketchup dispensers either. You have to ask. Israelis must be cleanly eaters. Do they have menus in English? Only in tourist spots. But many Israelis know some English.

Driving around, I saw huge office towers branded by tech companies like Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google. Israel is clearly a tech hub.

Be careful following Waze for directions while driving around. This app, which was created in Israel, recommends the shortest route but not always the most secure route. Some neighborhoods aren’t friendly to certain religious groups or ethnic groups, and some neighborhoods shouldn’t be driven through on religious holidays. I recommend traveling with someone who knows Israel.

Speaking of driving, I was amazed by the array of international cars in Israel. It has many brands you won’t find in the United States. That will be the subject of my next blog.

There were so many places in Israel I could have seen but I didn’t get a chance to in my two weeks there. Granted, this was my third visit. I’m looking forward to seeing Israel again.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Panama Papers: Money laundering loopholes are nothing new

No one who’s been paying attention to the real estate or financial markets should be surprised over the off-shore tax havens and money laundering schemes uncovered by the release of the Panama Papers. World governments have been aware of these loopholes for years.

The only question: Will the publicity storm prompt the United States and other governments to stop the flow of dark money?

Hundreds of journalists around the world [sadly, not including me] worked through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to comb through about 11.5 million leaked documents from the Panamanian law firm and corporate register Mossack Fonseca. Among the 214,000 offshore companies it listed, some were used to conceal from the public and from governments that politically connected individuals, known criminals and people who had no apparent sources of wealth controlled significant amounts of money. In some cases, these offshore companies owned real estate, including in Miami.

Of course, not all of these companies were registered offshore. States like Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming also allow LLCs to be registered without listing a managing member.

The fact that this is going on isn’t news. The Panama Papers made headlines because it named names.

Hey, how did that hair dresser from South America buy a $1 million condo on Brickell? You can't ask those questions if you don't know who's really buying.
Law enforcement has known since the 1980s that dirty money found its way into Miami real estate through shell corporations. Watch the documentary “Cocaine Cowboys” to see how drug money built much of this town. In 2013, I wrote the story “Condos, Cash, and Criminals” in the South Florida Business Journal addressing the concerns of many experts that dirty money was contributing to the surge of cash real estate deals.

Politicians and law enforcement have known this was a problem for decades. And yet, it has persisted. Who knows who really owns our real estate? Many people would rather not know, as long as they're making money off it.

Having covered both banking and real estate in South Florida, I can tell you that I often run into companies with no clear path of ownership. Sometimes they’re registered in Delaware, or offshore in places the Isle of Jersey or the British Virgin Islands.

Other times, they’re Florida-registered LLCs but the managing member clearly isn’t the owner. There’s no requirement that Florida LLC’s list the owner, only a person to handle the company’s affairs. Sometimes this is innocent, such as a famous athlete who makes his attorney the manager of the LLC because he doesn’t want to be bothered at his home.

It could also be used by money laundering drug dealers to set up straw managers to buy real estate through. There’s really no way I can tell that the LLC isn’t funded by terrorists, drug dealers or corrupt officials.

Some homes are bought by trusts. It’s extremely difficult for the public to know who controls them. You just have to trust that the lawyers who set them up did their due diligence.

As we saw in the Panama Papers, there’s a temptation for incorporation law firms to think money first, due diligence second. Plus, law firms don’t face the strict “know your customer” and “source of funds” rules that banks must comply with.

U.S. authorities could ask more of incorporation law firms. Federal and local governments could take measures to require ownership disclosure for LLCs. Authorities have started asking title companies to disclose the LLC owners in $1 million-plus deals in Miami and $3 million-plus deals in Manhattan

Until authorities start taking aggressive measures to promote disclosure, it’s clear they aren’t serious about addressing this problem.

It’s not so easy, though. Miami, New York and many other international cities are enjoying windfalls of foreign cash that have spurred building booms. That’s created jobs and increased property taxes, although some argue it’s also made real estate less obtainable for working families. I have a feeling that some, or perhaps most, Miami condo projects would fall apart if these loopholes were closed.

Should we start turning money away because we don’t trust the source? Or do we turn a blind eye?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Miami’s wealthy have failed the Frost Museum of Science

Seemingly everyone in Miami loves the idea of a world class science museum downtown but few are willing to pay for its construction, except for public officials using taxpayer money and the Frosts.

The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science would be a showcase for wonder and innovation in the heart of the city. In the middle of building the $305 million project, the non-profit ran out of cash. It burned through $160 million in county funds and it’s not asking for another $45 million up front instead of over time. The suggestion that a community redevelopment agency should direct its property tax funds to the museum instead of building facilities for low-income residents (what else is new?) has drawn controversy.

In a city inundated with cash and frequented by many of the world’s wealthiest people, hardly anyone has stepped up to make a significant donation to this project. I’ve heard from countless developers building downtown that the Frost Museum would be a great draw and benefit their projects. Condo investors see it as another amenity for the neighborhood, one they don’t have to pay association dues for. Many downtown retail and hospitality business owners expect it to attract more visitors.

Then why are so few of them cutting big checks? Do they expect to reap all the benefits without contributing to the cause?

The Frosts are by far the biggest donors with $45 million followed by the Knight Foundation with $10 million. If this were New York or Boston or Washington, D.C., there would be a long list of headline making donors after that. The fact that there’s not, really says something.

People come to Miami and buy real estate, expensive clothes, meals from celebrity chefs, and six-figure cars. Corporations and investment funds are paying record prices for Miami property, from apartment buildings to retail strips. They rarely make a true investment for the good of the community, which is what this museum is all about.

People like to brag about Miami being on the cutting edge of STEM, the next city on the rise. In reality, we’re playing catch up with other regions of the country when it comes to science. The Frost Museum could inspire a generation of local scientists, maybe even creating some jobs that actually pay enough to afford living here.

Is anyone going to step up and invest in Miami’s future?

Sometimes return on investment isn’t measured on a balance sheet.