Some years back, Northampton County Council was asked to approve an exotic refinancing plan known as a ''swaption.''
There were many twists to this story, including council inadvertently approving an $80,000 consultant's fee that included $40,000 for a mysterious middleman.
In light of what we've been reading in the great four-part series about the Bethlehem Area School District's swap flu pandemic, that fuss seems quaint. BASD's tangled, incestuous web of banks and consultants were hauling in millions, and the school board had no clue.
Anyway, the late Jeffrey Skinner, a financial adviser, was one of the people pushing this Northampton County deal, so reporter Paul Muschick and I met with him at the time to gain a better understanding of what happens in a swaption. I put the question to him: Explain this transaction to me in one sentence. I figured this would simplify our task in writing about it.
Skinner couldn't do it. He drew us charts, he gave us analogies, but he couldn't explain it in a sentence, or even in a paragraph.
I'm not knocking him. He was a smart guy. But these things are very complicated and difficult to explain, even for experts, and even harder for the rest of us to understand.
So for those of us who aren't financial masterminds, accepting these schemes as a good way to invest taxpayer money requires great faith in the people who are selling the idea that the benefits -- cash upfront and potential interest rate savings -- outweigh the risks.
The school board must have had a lot of faith in Superintendent Joseph Lewis and his assistant for finance and administration, Stanley J. Majewski Jr., because it went along with their plans to make BASD the state's most gung-ho swapmeister.
Majewski and Lewis apparently had extraordinary faith in financial consultant Les Bear, since they shunned competitive bidding and kept entrusting their business to him and his companies, often in multiple roles that created the appearance of stunning conflicts of interest. Between 2003 and 2007, Bear's firms were paid about $5.6 million in their various conflicting roles. More than half of that was for swaps.
To paraphrase ''Saturday Night Live'' baseball player Chico Escuela, Bear should repeat every morning: ''Bethlehem been berra berra good to me.''
According to the series by reporters Steve Esack and Tim Darragh, these leaps of faith have cost taxpayers nearly $10 million in net payments on the swaps and $25.4 million in fees and termination payments. In addition, the expected interest-rate savings from the swaps evaporated in the world economic meltdown, requiring giant district payouts instead. Interest on the variable-rate bonds has cost the district about $30 million, and hundreds of millions more in interest and principal remain to be paid.
All this is a huge factor in the big tax increases the district is facing and likely will continue to face.
I once tried to sum the disaster up by satirically equating the board's blind acceptance of these plans to falling for an e-mailed Nigerian business proposal from the widow of the late Saheed Baba Adams, killed by rebels during a Marxist uprising.
After reading this series, I still like that comparison. But what strikes me most, now that the Nigerians have stripped the district's bank accounts and forced taxpayers to reach deeper into their pockets to make up the difference -- probably for years -- is that the BASD hicks still won't acknowledge that they screwed up.
Presented with the opportunity to grill Lewis and Majewski at this week's meeting of the school board's finance committee, school board members Â didn't. Nothing. Publicly, at least, they seemed to be accepting the lame excuses and phony-baloney reports offered by the leaders who got them here, even after four days of intense public flagellation.
''It was not a bad business deal,''' Majewski claimed. ''It was beneficial.''
The board actually voted 6-3 to have the administration compose a written response to the stories, which should be very entertaining if they go through with it.
I helped trigger one of these written government responses many years ago. In response to my nasty columns and a series of news stories on Easton's neglected Restlawn housing project and its lack of affordable housing programs, Mayor Tom Goldsmith issued a 154-page tome defending his actions. It was the ''War and Peace'' of government snow jobs.
I would expect nothing less from Lewis and Majewski. Maybe Les Bear can give them a hand.
Shouldn't cost more than a million bucks or so.
Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.Copyright © 2015, CT Now