The SEC's porn problem

Outrage abounds over news that top watchdogs surfed for smut as the economy tanked. Let's not act so surprised

Published April 23, 2010 7:02PM (EDT)

As the global economy crashed and burned, certain top staffers at the Securities and Exchange Commission were busy watching porn. Instead of policing Wall Street, some were surfing for smut. This is the revelation making headlines today after the leak Thursday night of a summary of 33 probes of SEC employees using government computers to access pornography over the past five years. For the most part, the summary (PDF) resurfaces information that was already public; and it's worth noting that it was requested by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, and is now being used as political ammunition by the GOP.

The details are as follows: 31 of the investigations took place during the financial meltdown and, as the extent of the crisis became clear in 2008, the number of investigations ballooned from two the previous year to 16. Many of the porn-watching staffers held senior positions and six-figure salaries, and the cases run the gamut from employees simply accessing X-rated material during off hours on a government-issued laptops to watching porn for as many as five hours while on the job.

The summary includes salacious details about hundreds of images and videos stored on work hard drives. One resourceful fellow "used a flash drive to bypass the Commission's Internet filter and successfully access a significant number of pornographic images." Another employee received 16,000 access denials for sexually explicit websites over a one-month period -- talk about determination. The investigation even caught that supposedly rare creature: a porn-watching woman. A female staff accountant "received nearly 1,800 access denials for pornographic websites using her SEC laptop in only a two-week period, and had nearly 600 pornographic images saved on her laptop hard drive."

Well, now, this is all very exciting. We've been looking for a more satisfying scapegoat for the economic collapse -- why not pornography? Predictably enough, a blog post over at the Atlantic asks: "Did Porn Cause the Financial Crisis?" Oh, come on, let's not pretend that SEC employees' have a unique interest in X-rated Web sites: Roughly a quarter of U.S. employees with Internet access have looked at porn while on the clock. It's hardly surprising that a financial crisis of such magnitude would drive some SEC employees in search of a sexual release. As David Ito, an assistant director in the SEC's Los Angeles office, told investigators: "It's kind of one of those things where I felt really stressed, and it was kind of there." Sometimes a smoke break isn't enough.

These are serious violations, especially given the catastrophic backdrop against which they took place, and there was a clear failure in institutional oversight. I am wary, though, of joining the SEC's critics, as it seems an undercurrent of puritanism and hypocrisy has swept sense and reason out to sea.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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