They go by code names like Mercury John, Bre the Knife, Bobby Bailout, Flash Cash, Pete the Heat, and Gaelin the Good. They use gang signs, like two crossed middle fingers or pursed fingertips, reminiscent of Simpsons billionaire C. Montgomery Burns. They come from backgrounds in law, accounting, business, academia, and tattooing. Their real names have gone mostly unreported. But with access to over $450,000 in donations, expenses of about $10,000 a week, and a sometimes fractious community to fund, this eight-person group might be the most powerful at Occupy Wall Street: They are the finance committee.
As soon as the Occupy Wall Street protests gained momentum and money began to pour in via the Internet and personal donations, it was inevitable that the occupiers would eventually need a central bank. An ad hoc financial system initially evolved in fits and starts, but now, an eclectic team has taken on unique responsibilities and powers. If a working group wants to exceed its $100 weekly budget, it has to go to finance for a special dispensation form. The committee vets the budgets of proposals submitted by OWS members before they reach the General Assembly. If a proposal is considered dumb or illegal — “guns or booze” — finance can refuse the purchase. As Jackie DiSalvo, a key occupation organizer and union leader, told me: “At OWS, we try not to have leaders, but, in fact, that has resulted in our having many, many leaders.”
Until ten days ago, when Occupy Wall Street released its first financial report, the protest’s receipts, protocols, and balance sheets were all rumor and speculation. Occupiers were lashing out. The drum circle had accused finance of taxing away half of its tips — of “becoming like the banks we’re protesting,” in the words of 19-year-old drummer Shane Engelerdt. The circle went to the General Assembly to ask for $8,000 to buy new drums, but didn’t go through finance. Their proposal was struck down. Meanwhile, the tobacco group — teenagers selling hand-rolled cigarettes — also began to shout about taxation without representation.
So who exactly are the occupation’s much-maligned money-men? The finance group’s membership changes often, a product of the pressures of the job (names like Darrel Prince and Victoria Sobel, cited in previous press reports, no longer work on the team). The team’s most visible spokesperson has been Pete Dutro, 34, a tattoo artist and former software project manager who dropped out of an NYU finance degree program to join the occupation. He told CNN that working finance is like “having an office job in a mosh pit.” Dutro’s LinkedIn profile describes his ability to “work independently with little guidance” and “prioritize between competing agendas and resources.”
Currently, Wylie Stecklow is the committee’s legal attaché; he also runs his own downtown firm, WylieLaw. New members of the finance group are vetted by Sam Cohen, a clerk at WylieLaw who is not part of the team. Ironically enough, Cohen learned how to do background checks while working on consumer credit recovery: that is, while “suing people on overdue debt.” At his past firm, he tracked down debt delinquents with online tracing software. Stecklow is the only member of the committee privy to the results of background checks. He splits his time between Zuccotti Park and WylieLaw, managing the occupation’s accounts at Amalgamated Bank and the Lower East Side Credit Union. He also works with the Alliance for Global Justice, a 401c(3) that funnels tax-deductible donations to the occupation: over $217,000 so far.
Another finance member, John McGarvey (aka ‘Mercury John’) has been around since before the background checks began. He’s the group’s oldest member, a voluble, bespectacled businessman who drinks chardonnay during our interview and wears a heavy brass necklace shaped like a tornado. He claims to be the co-Chief Technology Officer of a “rapidly growing multinational,” although his LinkedIn profile describes him as the “Mac IT director” of a company called “Minds Insync,” which manufactures bath mats and hair towels. Like many on the financial working group, he’s supporting the occupation out of pocket; he won’t even eat at the communal kitchen. “We’re leading by example. We have to be way above everything,” says McGarvey, with a proud smile. “Because otherwise we’re the bad guys.” That doesn’t mean finance is afraid to say no. When I mention the drummers and cigarette sellers to him, Mercury bursts out laughing, and tells me about one agitator who bought a finance-style clipboard and started walking around the occupation, asking for donations. “We squashed him,” said McGarvey.
Other members include Bre Lembitz, 21 (“Bre the Knife,” because “she’s sharp like that,” according to McGarvey), who is a senior economics major at Clark University and full-time occupier. She speaks to the General Assembly and spokescouncil on finance’s behalf. Then there’s Robert Christ, or “Bobby Bailout” — he earned his name when he broke finance policy and “bailed out” a fellow occupier in financial trouble. Christ is an IT expert in his mid-thirties who mans the table in the evenings after he finishes his day job. JoAnn Fleming, or “Flash Cash,” is a certified public accountant who keeps the occupation’s books offsite (the group is currently in talks with a “major” accounting firm); Fleming also has a financial advice podcast. Two other members, men in their mid-thirties, remain anonymous.
Finance has faced fierce criticism for killing proposals before they get to the General Assembly. For example, at a meeting two weeks ago, a plan to open an OWS printing account got delayed for days. As its exasperated author explained, “The first proposal was invalid … because it didn’t go through finance.” Raising a procedural objection, a man in a leather jacket stood up. “If the GA consensed on this already, what are we discussing? If finance has a problem, then that needs to be discussed!” Nobody from finance spoke up. Though they eventually did approve the idea, the finance team can’t stand frivolous proposals. “Throw money at idiot things? I don’t think so,” McGarvey told me. “That’s the little old lady’s money. We have to be responsible.” He paused, rolled his eyes, and sipped his wine. “People are silly.” As Stecklow put it, finance has to review and block proposals “to make sure the budgets are in line with our mission.”
Some protestors have questioned the finance committee’s dealings with Amalgamated Bank, which is owned by unions but recently made a deal to sell shares to billionaires Wilbur Ross and Ron Burkle, as well as Magic Johnson.* It is also currently the subject of an FDIC consent order. “Why is OWS putting people’s donations into the corrupt banking system?” asked one occupier. Others still are concerned about a lack of fiscal transparency. The inaugural financial report hasn’t placated the naysayers: Some occupiers want a continuously updated open spreadsheet. “Listen, this money is in an account, somewhere,” one wrote recently on the occupation’s official forum. “Start by posting that statement/downloadable item, daily. Protect us, before this becomes a problem?” Finance insists that a monthly model is fine.
The group is overworked and understaffed: They met a week ago to decide whether or not to admit five additional members, but didn’t reach an agreement. The occupation’s bankers have to handle lock boxes, hold “office hours,” file receipts, initial hundreds of ziplock cash bags, count bills, field funding proposals, make deposits, and meet for drinks. (A few of them recently met with an Indian government minister to ask for advice.) Most of them work other jobs or live offsite, far from Zuccotti Park. There have been a few fights over lack of sleep and wads of bills. The group recently bought a cash-counting machine called “Bill the Counter,” which, according to McGarvey, has curbed the “fuck you, you miscounted” showdowns.
But winter is bringing larger donations and tougher expenses, and the bank account is growing and diversifying — the occupation recently pledged $20,000 to support the legal expenses of injured Oakland occupier and Iraq veteran Scott Olsen. The challenge of managing Occupy Wall Street’s finances, and the politics that accompany their distribution, doesn’t seem likely to get easier. “Finance is the focus of angst and animosity,” says McGarvey. “After all, it’s money.”
* This post has been corrected to show that Wilbur Ross, Ron Burkle, and Magic Johnson have made deals to invest in Amalgamated Bank, but do not own it.