'Whoops' fiasco may lure the watchdogs of Congress
Congress itches to get its hands on the so-called ''Whoops'' disaster - the $ 2.25 billion default in the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), which is by far the largest municipal bond default in history.
Some see in it a broader issue of American fiduciary relationships, with legal issues that Donald Platten, chairman of the board of the Chemical Bank of New York, declared this week will probably be carried to the Supreme Court.
Others argue it affects the relations of the financial community and investors, with a situation waiting to be explored that could be as dramatic as that in the 1930s when the famous Senate Pecora probe investigated John Pierpont Morgan Jr., one of the most eminent financiers of the age.
Thousands of investors have lost their savings in the WPPSS default, which grew out of miscalculation and subsequent abandonment of nuclear power plants in Washington State. It has sent up interest rates in tax-exempt and other ''municipals'' (bonds) throughout the country and brought under challenge the wisdom and responsibility of some of America's most prominent brokerage houses. The consternation is likened by some to the New Deal days after the 1929 stock-market crash. Prominent financiers were questioned by Ferdinand Pecora, investigator of a Senate committee, who revealed, among other things, that Mr. Morgan paid no income tax in 1930, 1931, and 1932. The inquiry opened the way for sweeping Roosevelt reform legislation.
Washington studies the losses suffered in the $2.25 billion default in the Pacific Northwest, and asks if a new Pecora inquiry is needed. Developments push forward on various fronts.
* George Reedy, former special assistant to President Johnson, told a congressional committee recently: ''I think there is crying need right now for such a thoroughgoing assessment of our economy (as the early New Deal hearings).''
* Donald Platten, chairman of the board of Chemical Bank, said on the television program ''Face the Nation'' Sunday that he expects ''this thing to be carried to the US Supreme Court.'' As a spokesman of the bank that was involved in marketing the bonds, he said: ''I just cannot believe that this kind of thing will not have tremendously bad repercussions around the whole financial world if it's allowed to go this way.''
* Bondholders, facing major losses, are banding together to sue almost everybody. Defendants include a group of 88 utilities in the Northwest. Prominent brokers who formerly enthusiastically sold WPPSS bonds are accused of carelessness and negligence. Why did the bonds get high ratings at one time from investment services, it is demanded? Some bonds that sold for $5,000 in March 1981 are quoted this week for as little as $700.
* Subsidiary suits are proliferating. The Washington Public Power Supply System has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court, for example, charging six electrical contractors with bid rigging. Criminal charges were previously filed by the Justice Department.
Mr. Platten this week said his bank would try to hold the 88 public utility companies in the State of Washington subject to assessment for losses. Bondholders are ''in a state of shock,'' he said. CBS moderator George Herman likened it to the Pecora committee in the '30s investigating brokerage houses that ''pushed issues of stock without even having looked to see if there was anything behind them.''
Congress has not intervened in the present situation, though accumulating events begin to recall the 1930s. The power venture, originally calling for five nuclear plants, was launched on miscalculations of costs of nuclear power and energy needs. Commenting Aug. 8, Time magazine said, ''Scores of electric utilities and possibly other public agencies across the US will be facing higher interest rates to raise capital, and will have to pass the added costs along to consumers and taxpayers.''