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Whistleblower in our midst

It’s been a banner week for famous faces around here.

Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of the Savannah Film Festival and Bobby Zarem (where is his monument already?), you may have glimpsed Precious star Gabby Sidibe wandering through the exhibits at the SCAD Museum of Art or James Gandolfini chilling at Pinkie Masters. Last week’s Connect cover man John Goodman was spotted gladhanding around the lobby of the Marshall House and there’ll be plenty more Hollywood to ogle before the festival closes Saturday night.

But you might not recognize the guy who’s making bigger news than any of them at the moment: If you saw Jeff Connaughton sitting outside J. Christopher with his adorable dog like any other big city transplant lulled by Savannah’s affordable real estate, you’d probably walk right on by.

You’d never guess this steel–haired fellow with the crooked smile was a lead story on FOX News Thursday. Or that New Yorker writer George Packer spent three days interviewing him for the 10–page article “Washington Man” that ran last week. How could you possibly tell that he stands Adam’s apple to Adam’s apple with Ann Coulter in the Amazon rankings for political book sales?

The former White House lawyer, lobbyist and senatorial chief of staff may not be mobbed for autographs, but there are a lot of people who might like to shake his hand for the skewering truths told about the banking crisis in his new book, The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. There are also probably a lot of people who would like to punch him in the nose, including Vice President Joe Biden.

Part self–deprecating memoir, part financial industry primer with hefty dashes of political science, The Payoff lobs an accusatory war hammer at the impotence of the Obama administration when it came to prosecuting the individuals responsible for all those skanky subprime mortgages that decimated American retirement funds. The author also fully discloses that he cashed in plenty as a lobbyist, a job he quit when he realized he’d sold out his democratic ideals for a place in the plutocracy.

In redressing the sins of the Democratic Party, the Alabama native admits to a case of sour grapes when it comes to the vice president, on whose staff he served during Biden’s disatrous 1988 presidential campaign. Once a starry–eyed admirer of the senator from Delaware, Connaughton came to see Biden as less idol, more autocrat, “as incorruptible as he was ungrateful,” as Packer writes in The New Yorker.

But the book also lays bare the ugly fact that greed is an equal opportunity strategy that crosses party lines. The conservative pundits trying to use The Payoff as ammunition clearly haven’t read it; Republicans looking for vindication here end up like Elmer Fudd after Bugs Bunny’s dynamite has gone off. Spoiler alert: Wall Street always wins because it funnels its money into both sides, and no politician is going to bite the hand that feeds him or her—with the exception of Senator Ted Kaufman. As Biden’s successor and Connaughton’s last boss, Kaufman refused to run for reelection and thus spent his time in office attempting to motivate the Justice Department into handing down even just one fraud indictment—to no avail, as we all know.

“We throw people who rob banks in jail. What about when the banks rob us?” rails Connaughton, still prickly about the subject two and a half years later. “And now the small banks are paying for the big banks—the ones that should have been broken up.”

He was there when Kaufman lambasted the toothless Dodd–Frank Act on the Senate floor and shows us what we’ve suspected all along: The game is rigged. And you’re never gonna be a player unless you’re part of what Connaughton has coined the “The Blob” of Washington elites who trade government jobs for banking industry positions then back again depending on who’s in office like the creepy incestuous brother and sister swapping beds in Flowers in the Attic.

No matter who sits in the Oval Office, it’s always Wall Street that’s running the show.

“Not once were banks brought up in the debates,” he points out. “It’s not even being discussed anymore. That’s worrying, because another financial crisis could happen all over again.”

I comment to Connaughton that if he had written this book anywhere but America, he would have disappeared under mysterious circumstances involving cement shoes.

“I knew I was going to blow myself up with his,” sighs the man who once owned an Italian speedboat during his lobbyist days and will never, ever work in Washington again. “But I believe it’s something worth fighting for.”

He’s chosen self–imposed exile in Savannah, where he’s been writing and relaxing in anonymity with Nellie, a mutt he rescued from the band of 17 neglected dogs found in a Victorian district house last year. Together the two have been nursing their wounds and preparing for the next phase, which may be in academia (he’s preparing his notes to give a guest lecture at MIT later this month) or as a punctilious commentator (he just returned from filming a segment for Frontline in New York.)

While it may or may not affect Tuesday’s election, The Payoff’s slow burn may inspire more insiders to jump the Mothership and stand up to the corrupt corporate political climate infecting the democratic process and threatening our financial stability. Jeff Connaughton is leading the charge. And whatever happens, he probably won’t remain just another downtown face for long.

Jeff Connaughton will speak and sign copies of The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins Saturday, Nov. 3 at 6:30 p.m. at the Book Lady, 6 E. Liberty St.