A friend was recently riding on Fifth Avenue in downtown San Mateo when a car made a right-hand turn on a red light and knocked him off his bike. The driver, in a rush, didn’t bother to see if his path was clear. For those few seconds of saved time, the driver caused the injured cyclist months of pain, hospitalization, surgery and probably years of lost mobility.
We all take those red light turns as a right and not a responsibility. I have been guilty myself of a couple of close calls both as a careless driver and as an almost knocked-down pedestrian. Now when I cross the street and someone has the legal right to make a turn on a red light or at a stop sign, I wait until I make sure the driver sees me. Especially at this time of year when everyone seems in a rush to shop, to travel, to get to and from work, it’s a good idea to observe some red light and stop sign etiquette.
To make the long trip on Highway 101 to Southern California less tedious, we borrowed three audiobooks from the San Mateo library. Two were mysteries but the third, “The Hellhound of Wall Street,” by Michael Perino, an account of the 1933 Senate hearings which put Wall Street on trial for the Great Crash, was by far the most riveting. It was the story of Ferdinand Pecora’s examination of Wall Street’s leading bankers which exposed financial abuses such as selling worthless bonds, manipulating stock prices and “excessive compensation and bonuses awarded to its executives for peddling shoddy securities to the American public.”
Sounded all too familiar, it hurt. But what was different was that the hearing began under a Republican president, Herbert Hoover in the last days of his presidency, and that the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency was a progressive, Peter Norbeck from South Dakota. Norbeck was well aware of the pain inflicted on farmers in his home state during the Depression and he was not afraid to support a vigorous investigation. He was aided by fellow progressive Republican James Couzens of Michigan. Pecora, though mostly forgotten today, was a hero to the many who had lost their life’s savings and their jobs because of the actions of National City Bank and other financial institutions.
Pecora was born in Sicily, Italy, the son of a factory worker. Through hard work, he became one of New York’s top prosecuting attorneys. Pecora relentlessly grilled the most famous names in finance and exposed a stock market manipulated by speculators at the expense of small investors
Pecora showed that Albert Wiggin of Chase and Charles Mitchell of National City had shorted Chase shares during the crash, profiting from falling prices. He also revealed that Mitchell and top officers at National City had helped themselves to $2.4 million in interest-free loans from the bank’s coffers to ease them through the crash. National City had also palmed off bad loans by packing them into securities and selling them to unsuspecting investors.
The hearing resulted in new laws and regulations aimed at preventing a Depression-size calamity from befalling the country again. What few anticipated was how short-lived those laws and regulations would be. The abuses highlighted by the Pecora Commission are similar to the abuses that led to the recent financial meltdown. But unlike the Pecora commission, Congress has been reluctant to investigate what went wrong. No Wall Street executives have been questioned for days at a time by a skilled interrogator such as Pecora.
Sad to hear about the passing of Frances Nelson, daughter of David Bohannon, and the owner of the Hillsdale Shopping Center. Frances was the very opposite of an absentee owner. She was very interested and involved in what was happening in San Mateo, attended many council and committee meetings, and gave generously to local charities. She was a dynamic force in the community and will be missed. Fortunately, her legacy, the shopping center, has a robust future despite the shelving of recent expansion plans. These included a new Target store and a luxury movie (where seats are reserved and food and drink can be ordered and served while you watch the movie). The reason: Target is feeling overextended. It already has a successful store in San Mateo at the Bridgepointe Shopping Center and plans for a new store in Palo Alto have also been put on hold. Let’s hope the theater is still in the works.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.