Mark Pittman, 52; reporter who foresaw subprime crisis

By Bob Ivry
Bloomberg News / November 28, 2009

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NEW YORK - Mark Pittman, the award-winning investigative reporter whose fight to open the Federal Reserve to more scrutiny led Bloomberg News to sue the central bank and win, died Wednesday in Yonkers, N.Y. He was 52.

Mr. Pittman suffered from heart-related illnesses. The precise cause of his death was not known, said his friend William Karesh, vice president of the Global Health Program at the Bronx-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Mr. Pittman, a former police beat reporter who joined Bloomberg News in 1997, wrote stories in 2007 predicting the collapse of the banking system. That year, he won the Gerald Loeb Award from the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, the highest accolade in financial journalism, for “Wall Street’s Faustian Bargain,’’ a series of articles on the breakdown of the US mortgage industry.

Mr. Pittman’s fight to make the Fed more accountable resulted in an Aug. 24 victory in Manhattan Federal Court affirming the public’s right to know about the central bank’s more than $2 trillion in loans to financial firms. Mr. Pittman drew the attention of filmmakers Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, who gave him a prominent role in their documentary about subprime mortgages, “American Casino,’’ which was shown at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival in May.

“Who sues the Fed? One reporter on the planet,’’ said Emma Moody, a Wall Street Journal editor who worked with Pittman at Bloomberg.

“The more complex the issue, the more he wanted to dig into it. Years ago, he forced us to learn what a credit-default swap was. He dragged us kicking and screaming.’’

James Mark Pittman was born in Kansas City, Kan., where he played linebacker on the high school football team. He took engineering classes at the University of Kansas in Lawrence before graduating with a degree in journalism in 1981.

He was married soon after and had a daughter, Maggie, in 1983. The marriage ended in divorce.

Mr. Pittman’s first reporting job, covering the Police Department for the Coffeyville Journal in southern Kansas, paid so little he took a part-time job as a ranch hand across the border in Lenapah, Okla., according to an interview he gave to Ryan Chittum for the Columbia Journalism Review’s The Audit, a watchdog for the business press.

“What a funny guy - huge personality,’’ Chittum said in an e-mail message.

“Mark was my favorite reporter working. In a time when too much journalism is timid or co-opted, Mark personified the whole ‘afflict the comfortable’ tenet of the business. Mark’s passing is a huge loss for journalism at a time when we can least afford it.’’

Mr. Pittman spent a year in Rochester, N.Y., with the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper and 12 years at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., where he met his wife, Laura Fahrenthold-Pittman, in 1995.

“All I know is we fell in love the moment we met,’’ Fahrenthold-Pittman said in an interview yesterday.

“We moved in together a week later. He was as serious about his family life as he was about work. Mark did nothing in a small way.’’

In 2007, Mr. Pittman was writing about the securitization of home loans when subprime borrowers, who have bad or limited credit histories, began missing payments on their mortgages at a faster pace.

Mr. Pittman’s June 29, 2007, article headlined “S&P, Moody’s Hide Rising Risk on $200 Billion of Mortgage Bonds’’ was excoriated at the time by for “trying to play gotcha’ with the ratings agencies.’’

Mr. Pittman’s story proved prescient. So did his reports on US banks exporting toxic mortgages overseas, on Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson’s role in creating those troubled assets while he was chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and on the US bailout of American International Group Inc.

“He’s been on this crisis since before the crisis,’’ said Gretchen Morgenson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning financial columnist for The New York Times.

“He was the best at burrowing into the most complex securities Wall Street could come up with and explaining the implications of them to readers of all levels of sophistication. His investigative work during the crisis set the standard for other reporters everywhere. He was a giant.’’

In the “Faustian Bargain’’ series, Mr. Pittman explained how 5 percent of US mortgage borrowers missing monthly payments could lead to a freeze in lending throughout the world.

Public policy would be more effective if reporters, lawmakers, and citizens understood how the financial system worked and why the crisis happened, Mr. Pittman said during the interview with Chittum in February.

“We need to know how to prevent it from happening again, and we need to know who did it,’’ he said.

“I always learned something new when I spoke with Mark,’’ said Representative Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican on the House Financial Services Committee.

Bloomberg’s lawsuit against the Fed, which was filed after Mr. Pittman’s requests under the US Freedom of Information Act were denied, continues without him. The central bank won a delay pending an appeal, which is scheduled for the week of Jan. 4.

At the time of his death, Mr. Pittman’s outgoing messages offered a link to a black-and-white photo of Woody Guthrie. Written on Guthrie’s guitar: “This machine kills fascists.’’